Wrongful Death Verdict Awarded to Family in California Prison Suit


Just over three years ago, a young man died in California’s Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. He was 26 years old. Although he had no known mental problems, he was forced to take Zyprexa and he was kept locked in his cell for seven weeks without a break. He wrote a letter to his parents to say he was finally happy to be coming home in a few days.

He never made it home alive.

The Corrections Department gave his family no real answers and the family sued the State of California, not specifically to get money, but to change the California prison system that kills at least one prisoner every day of the year.

After more than three years, the case was won and the State was forced to pay, and make some changes.

The dead man’s family, along with other families who lost family members, attorneys, members of the clergy, the Vice President of United Native Americans, and a CDCR whistleblower held a press conference to try to stop the medical neglect and the killing of people in California prisons.

Even though the case was won and some changes were required, many people doubt that any real changes will take place.

What I want to tell the people of California is that “Today, five families, attorneys, five members of the clergy and other affected people came out to speak against the murders taking place in California prisons, in your name, paid for with your tax dollars.

That is five families whose loved ones died unneccessarily in prison. This is not a rare accident, but a condition taking place every day because the public outcry about it is not loud enough. YOU are the public outcry that has been missing. Now is the time.”

Reverend Cayenne Bird

The Death of Joseph John Sullivan

Joseph John Sullivan, age 26, died on June 4, 2006. Joseph was found hanging from strips of bed sheet in the Administrative Segregation unit in cell 150 at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. Chuckawalla is a prison near Blythe, California, a city near the Arizona border, which frequently sets the record for the highest daily temperature in the United States.

The investigation of Joseph’s death has taken more than three years and has uncovered extremely harsh confinement conditions at Chuckawalla that amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Joseph’s Eighth Amendment rights, and also directly in violation of orders dealing with psychotropic heat risk medications, mandated as a result of the Coleman Class Action Case as early as 1992 – the so-called “Heat Plans.”

Joseph was housed for weeks on end in temperatures near or in excess of 120 degrees. Two former inmates, housed in the cell directly next to Joseph, testified in this case that they could literally fry sandwich meat on the wall or make beef-jerky out of it, and that if you put your hand on the wall (which was concrete and most of the day directly in the sunlight from the outside), your hand would literally burn!

Joseph was confined alone in his hot cell for more than seven weeks without being allowed outside in the yard, not even once, all this time being on Zyprexa which is a heat-risk drug for which very specific orders are to be followed: Inmates are to be transferred and are to be housed in the coolest cells, provided water, ice, showers, etc. These orders were systematically ignored.

Attorney David Springfield

Other speakers said they were at the Capital to be the voice of the voiceless because so many people and so many families were suffering at the hands of the California Department of Corrections.

Reverend Andre Shumake told the story of his nephew dying in a California prison unnecessarily. The Pastor said “It is a reality in California that there is a pattern and practice of medical neglect within this prison system… It’s not a mistake, it’s not something that happens periodically, it is something that goes on, on a daily basis. Had I not been impacted by the loss of my own family member, I wouldn’t have realised the seriousness, and just how embedded this problem is, within this prison system, here in the state of California.”

He said “We are praying that today, something will be said, something will be done, to inspire the legislature to do something about this system, because it needs to change.

Many families said they still had no answers to their questions, months and even years after the deaths of their family members.

Because of the problems caused by the combination of psychotropic drugs and heat, the prison administrations are required to test and log the daily temperatures. At this prison, they regularly logged the temperature at a comfortable 80 degrees, even when it was 120 degrees.

“John Sullivan was tortured to death, at Chuckawalla prison.”

Attorney Abraham Goldman

Attorney Abraham Goldman said the only reason the truth came to light was that the family had the strength and faith not only to carry on, but to bring the lawsuit. He said “People that come forward are the only ones that can stop this from continuing.”

Dr Deborah Lonergan, a 20 year forensic psychologist and former employee of CDCR, who testified in the case, said “I believe that CDCR is directly responsible for the suicide of Joseph Sullivan. I can believe that CDCR is deliberately indifferent to the medical, mental heath and custodial needs of inmates. Joseph’s case is an indictment of the malicious maltreatment of inmates incarcerated in CDCR.”

Quanah Parker Brightman, Vice President of United Native Americans said he was concerned about the many native americans incarcerated in California prisons.

“Chief Lame Deer once said ‘Before our white brothers came to civilize us we had no jails. Therefore we had no criminals. You can’t have criminals without a jail. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a person was so poor that he had no horse, tipi or blanket, someone gave him these things. We were too uncivilized to set much value on personal belongings. We wanted to have things only in order to give away.

We had no money, and therefore a mans worth couldn’t be measured by it. We had no written law, no attorneys or politicians, therefore we couldn’t cheat. But now visible progress is everywhere – jails all over the place and we know these jails are for us indians. What a pity that so many of us don’t appreciate them.”

Quanah Parker Brightman, Vice President of United Native Americans

Reverend Cayenne Bird, a longtime campaigner against injustice and leader of the “United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect” group, said that millions of family members are suffering because of the pain inflicted on their family by CDCR. She said they could stop that pain by taking action to bring about change.

More information, including the full text of the prepared remarks of each speaker can be found at the U.N.I.O.N. website

See Also: Wrongful death story by B. Cayenne Bird

Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start pounding the keyboard. Alan has a fascination with making video and video editing, so watch out if he points his Canon 7d in your direction.