Parents awarded $750,000 for wrongful death of prisoner

There was a documented serious mental illness in Duran’s prison records

By Tommy Bryant

The parents of an inmate were awarded $750,000 for their son’s wrongful death after he was pepper-sprayed by a correctional officer in 2013.

When inmate Joseph Damien Duran refused to release the feed port to his cell, Officer Roy C. Chavez pepper-sprayed his face and neck. Duran was using a breathing tube in his throat at the time of the incident, according to an article by Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh of the Sacramento Bee.

The Amador County coroner’s office initially classified Duran’s death as a “suicide” at Mule Creek State Prison near Sacramento, according to the Bee.

Duran’s pepper-spray death was revealed to his parents four months later by a Bee reporter. His parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. They accused corrections officials of covering up the incident and failing to notify them of their son’s death.“The fact of the matter is the people involved in this were promoted…”

The “code of silence” concealing Duran’s death at the prison was broken by psychologist Eric Reininga when he leaked confidential information to the Bee.

Several internal investigations at the prison were conducted to find out who had informed the Bee. Reininga was the only person to receive punishment in the case. Duran’s parents thanked him for disclosing details of the death publicly. (Reininga has sued corrections officials claiming he was fired contrary to public policy protecting whistleblowers.)

“It’s outrageous,” said Stewart Katz, the attorney representing Duran’s adoptive parents. “The fact of the matter is the people involved in this were promoted, and the one person who steps outside of the box to try and do something right winds up getting terminated.”

The parties agreed to a settlement conference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall Newman. “I don’t think they’ve ever paid out that much at that stage of the proceedings,” Katz said.

The case prompted the reopening of a federal court hearing, which resulted in changed rules for using pepper spray on mentally ill inmates. There was a documented serious mental illness in Duran’s prison records, the Bee says.

“The fact of the matter is the people involved in this were promoted …”

Joseph was adopted by the Durans at age 5. His biological parents were addicted to drugs at his birth. At age 15, mental illness, drug abuse and crime kept him locked up much of the time, according to the Bee.

The Durans received an apology from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for failing to send a formal notification of Joseph’s death.

Steps for notifying next of kin were modified by the state after the settlement.

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