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Series of Inmate Deaths in El Paso County Jail Prompt ACLU Call for Investigation


November 5, 2001

In a letter to the El Paso Board of County Commissioners, the ACLU called today for an investigation to determine whether "systemic and ongoing deficiencies in the delivery of medical and mental health care" are responsible for a series of inmate deaths in the county jail in Colorado Springs.


The letter was prompted by reports of that inmate Brian Richard Bennett died on November 3 after reportedly attempting suicide in the jail on November 1. According to the ACLU, Bennett is the fourth inmate to die in the El Paso County Jail this year and the seventh to die in custody since 1998, when inmate Michael Lewis perished after being strapped to the jail's restraint board. All of the seven were pre-trial detainees who were accused of offenses but not convicted.

The series of deaths raises "serious questions about the training and staffing levels at the jail," according to Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "There are particularly serious questions about whether the jail's medical and mental health units are adequately staffed with competent personnel."


Silverstein said that the medical and security staff at a large county jail should be prepared for inmates who may be psychotic, suicidal, or seriously mentally ill or who are overdosing or withdrawing from street drugs or alcohol. "Each of the seven deceased inmates fits into one or more of these categories," Silverstein said. "The circumstances of their deaths raise serious questions whether the jail has a sufficient number of competent medical and security staff who can recognize the medical and psychiatric symptoms of this inmate population and respond in a timely and appropriate fashion."


Several of the deaths have prompted litigation. After Lewis died on the jail's restraint board, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit that ended the jail's use of the controversial restraint device. The family of Michael Lewis filed a separate wrongful death action, which was settled last April. Last May, the ACLU filed a wrongful death and civil rights suit on behalf of the family of Andrew Spillane, who died in the jail in May, 2000. The family of Steven Phelps recently filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for his death.


"This series of inmate deaths should be a wake-up call to the Sheriff's Department and the County Commissioners," Silverstein said. "If nothing is done, there are likely to be more tragic deaths and more lawsuits in the future."

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