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Jail suit moves at snail's pace

 

It's been more than two years since a group of El Paso County jail inmates with mental health problems hit the jail with a lawsuit alleging that understaffing of mental-health workers led to harmful, even abusive, conditions.

The merits of their contentions, that jailers used restraints and pepper spray on inmates in need of mental care and improperly denied or switched psychological medications, remain unexamined in court. Lawyers have instead argued over the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which Congress established in 1996 to limit inmate litigation.

After a year in limbo, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled that District Court Judge Richard Matsch had "erred" and could not prevent prisoners the ability to file a class action lawsuit.

Without that class-action status, the suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado on behalf of former inmates Mark Shook, Dennis Jones, Shirlen Mosby and James Vaughan, would die. With it, the ACLU can represent past and future inmates that receive mental care at the jail and argue for better conditions.

The ACLU is waiting for the case to be returned to Matsch's court.

"We're back to where we were at the get-go," said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein.

But Jay Lauer, an assistant attorney for the county, said officials would decide in coming weeks whether to appeal the appellate court's ruling. A county appeal could possibly set the stage for a battle in the U.S. Supreme Court over the prison litigation act and mean several more months, or even years, before the case is resolved, Lauer said.

The suit followed a rash of inmate deaths at the jail starting in 1998, when Michael Lewis, an inmate with mental problems, died after being strapped to a restraint board the jail has since discontinued using. Since then, at least 14 inmates have died at the jail.

The Sheriff's Office, in a press release last week, stated it has improved mental-health services in the last 18 months, increasing counselors from two to four and speeding up mental care for inmates. The ACLU isn't taking the county's word that conditions are better.

"We're still getting letters saying there are problems," Silverstein said.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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