Colorado Rights Blog


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October 18, 2004

In a ruling announced today, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a class action lawsuit filed in 2002 on behalf of prisoners with serious mental health needs in the El Paso County Jail in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The ruling reverses a decision issued in 2003 by Federal District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch, who had ruled that the suit could not proceed as a class action. Shortly after that ruling, Judge Matsch dismissed the case, and ACLU attorneys appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Denver-based United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit unanimously reversed those rulings today and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. The appeals court ruled that Judge Matsch had failed to apply the correct legal principles in determining whether the case could be brought as a class action. In his 2003 decision, Judge Matsch had concluded that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed by Congress in 1996, restricted the ability of prisoners to bring class action lawsuits. The Tenth Circuit ruled today that that conclusion was incorrect; “we hold that the PLRA does not add new elements to the class certification analysis,” wrote Judge Timothy Tymkovich for the court.

Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado and one of the lawyers representing the prisoners, welcomed the ruling. “The El Paso County Jail has been unable to fulfill its constitutional duty to protect prisoners from the risk of self-harm or suicide and to provide for their serious mental health needs,” he said. “We are pleased that the court of appeals reinstated our case, which we hope will ultimately result in positive changes in the jail’s treatment of an especially vulnerable sector of the jail population.”

The lawsuit was brought in 2002 by four prisoners in the El Paso County Jail who suffer from serious mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression. The four alleged that, while in the Jail, they were denied access to necessary medication and mental health treatment, and that their condition deteriorated as a result. The lawsuit seeks changes in staffing, procedures, policy, and jail conditions; no money damages are sought.

The Jail has been plagued by suicides and other avoidable deaths in recent years. In March 2001, Stephen Phelps hanged himself the day after the Jail’s unlicensed mental health counselor concluded that he needed no further mental health services. In November 2001, 22-year-old Brian Bennett hanged himself when the Jail staff who had been assigned to check on him failed to do so. Both Phelps and Bennett were pretrial detainees who had not been convicted of any crime, and both had a history of mental health problems. The ACLU’s complaint discusses the deaths of nine prisoners. Several additional prisoners died while the lawsuit has been pending.

Additional information about the suit, including the ACLU’s complaint, is available here.

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