The family of an inmate who died of asphyxiation at Western Correctional Institution filed suit in federal court yesterday against prison officials for what the family's attorney describes as an "unreasonable and illegal" use of deadly force.
The lawsuit, which names Warden Jon P. Galley, Lt. James Shreve and six officers as defendants, seeks $28 million in damages for the April 30 death of Ifeanyi A. Iko at the Allegany County prison.
The lawsuit alleges violations of U.S. civil rights law and accuses the warden and correctional officers of trying to cover up the circumstances of Iko's death. It lays a large part of the blame for the death on the atmosphere at the prison.
The suit says prison administrators failed to "discipline or prosecute in any meaningful manner" correctional officers who have been involved in "incidents of brutality."
These officers were encouraged by "investigative and administrative inaction ... to believe that misconduct, including assault, battery and other acts of brutality were permissible and would not be punished," the suit states.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating inmate claims of abuse by officers at the prison, and the FBI is investigating Iko's death.
State corrections officials said yesterday they could not comment because they had not yet seen the lawsuit. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt and was expected to be assigned to federal court in Baltimore.
The state medical examiner's office ruled Iko's death a homicide, but an internal investigation and later grand jury probe found no criminal wrongdoing by prison staff.
Gary Adler, an attorney for the Iko family, said the lawsuit is not just about money, but also about exposing abusive conditions at the prison.
"Ifeanyi believed the abuse in this prison ought to be addressed, and we're carrying out his wishes," Adler said. "Anyone who knows anything about suing prisons and guards, and the difficulties involved, knows this suit is not being filed solely for money."
Iko, 51, died shortly after a group of officers used force to remove him from an isolation cell. Prison officials said they wanted to move Iko to another part of the prison for medical observation, but that he refused to cooperate.
Prison officials said they found the Nigerian immigrant lying motionless in the observation cell about two hours later, tried to revive him and summoned an ambulance.
The lawsuit alleges that Iko was dead - although handled as if he were still alive - when taken by ambulance from the prison. A few minutes after driving away from the prison, a paramedic reported Iko showed signs of rigor mortis, and he received permission to cease lifesaving efforts.
If Iko had been declared dead inside the prison, under correctional department rules WCI officials would have been required to take special steps to secure the scene and preserve evidence.
"None of the rules and regulations applicable to the circumstances were followed," the suit states.
Adler also noted that correctional officials failed to notify Iko's next-of-kin of his death and that they first learned about it two weeks later from a Sun reporter.
An autopsy report said Iko's death was caused by "chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray," the placement of a mesh mask over Iko's face to prevent spitting or biting, and the way he was restrained.
He originally was sent to prison to serve a three-year sentence for a drug charge but received an additional 20 years for assaulting a correctional officer in 1992 in an Eastern Shore prison.
Douglas L. Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said the Iko family's civil suit is another avenue to find out what happened to Iko.
He noted that the family's attorney will be able to depose witnesses and, through the discovery process, gain access to department records about the WCI incident.
The records include a videotape of Iko's April 30 "cell extraction" that correctional department officials have refused to release to the public or to a legislative oversight committee that requested it.
"This is the place where the truth will be revealed," Colbert said of the civil lawsuit. "The family will learn what happened."
Conditions at the prison were also the focus of a recent trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, as a jury heard an inmate's claims that he was abused by officers.
The jury found two officers violated the inmate's constitutional rights by assaulting him and slamming his head against the wall while he was handcuffed, and awarded him $45,001.
Attorneys for the state have since filed a request for a new trial, claiming that new evidence has surfaced which proves that the inmate's claims were fabricated.