DENVER – Three guards at the Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado are accused of pepper-spraying a room full of Muslims who were trying to pray, then beating up and putting in solitary confinement one of the inmates who threatened legal action against the guards.
The allegations were made in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Colorado Monday. The suit alleges three inmates – Donell Blount, Cecil Mason and Terry Phillips – were victims of the pepper spray attack and were punished afterward for their protests against the guards’ actions.
The suit names three defendants – Ethan Kellogg, David Scherbarth, and a man with the last name of Quinlan – all of whom were guards at the prison when the incident allegedly occurred in April 2016.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Denver attorney David Lane, argues that his clients’ constitutional rights as ascribed by the Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, were violated during the incident and afterward.
According to the suit, Blount was to lead a weekly Jumu’ah prayer service that was regularly attended by all Muslims at the facility.
But when they arrived to the room where the service was usually held, at the time it was usually held, jail guards were instead using the room for a boot exchange program. Kellogg allegedly told them to go back to their cell unit instead of practicing that day.
But about an hour-and-a-half later – 23 minutes before the designated prayer time was set to end – Kellogg allegedly called the Muslim inmates back to the room so they could carry out their prayer service, “despite having an insufficient amount of time to conduct a meaningful service,” according to the suit.
Nonetheless, they decided to go forward with a shorter service, according to the suit.
But when Blount and the other Muslims entered the room, they “were immediately engulfed by a cloud of oleoresin capsicum gas (“OC Gas”), also known as pepper spray,” the suit says.
It says that Blount and others immediately rushed out of the room and saw Kellogg outside laughing. Blount allegedly had to use a rescue inhaler to save him from an asthma attack caused by the gas, according to the suit, which also says that Kellogg admitted to releasing the pepper spray into the room before the Muslim inmates entered.
But the alleged harassment by the guards didn’t stop there.
On March 22 of this year, according to Monday’s suit, Scherbarth brought Blount into his office and asked if and why he had contacted Lane to pursue further claims against the guards.
According to the suit, Blount confirmed he had and that he planned to pursue a civil rights violations case against the guards.
Afterward, according to the suit, Scherbeth threatened Blount on multiple occasions that there would be retribution if he filed suit.
That included, according to lane, Scherbarth telling Blount that, “Life would be hard”; the guards were “gonna have [Blount’s] ass in the hole”; and that guards were “gonna f---ing torture” Blount.
According to the lawsuit, Blount confirmed again he would move forward with the suit, then stood up and put his hands behind his back so as to be escorted back to his cell.
Instead, the suit states, Scherbarth and other guards came in and took Blount straight to solitary confinement. Lane argues this was direct retribution for Blount’s threatening of legal actions.
But while on the way to solitary, according to the suit, Quinlan told Blount several times to “drop the case,” and when Blount said he would refuse to, Quinlan allegedly punched him several times in the kidneys while he was handcuffed.
“There was no legitimate penological justification at the time to use any degree of force against [Blount],” the suit states.
After the punches, Blount spent the next 18 hours urinating blood, an indicator of internal injuries and bleeding, and was denied medical care while in solitary, according to Lane.
The suit claims Kellogg violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth and 14th amendments protecting inmates from unreasonable seizure through excessive force and from cruel and unusual punishment.
Also claims that Kellogg violated the inmates’ rights to their free exercise of religious freedom: Kellogg’s action in pepper spraying the Muslim prisoners was undertaken due to his animus for Islam and its practitioners,” the suit wrote.
Blount also claims that Quinlan violated his constitutional rights when he allegedly punched him in the back, and the suit also claims that all of the prisoners’ rights to free speech were violated when the guards retaliated against their free speech.
The suit also calls for claims that Kellogg defied the Constitution’s equal protection clauses, and that he violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by not allowing the prisoners to practice their religion.
Lane seeks a jury trial for his clients, who have asked a judge for declaratory and injunctive relief, actual, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.
Mason, 28, is serving at least 17 years in the facility for crimes out of Arapahoe, Adams and Denver counties. Phillips, 34, is serving 25 years for a crime out of Denver.
Blount is no longer being listed as being in Colorado Department of Corrections custody, according to its website.
The Colorado Department of Corrections, which oversees the Sterling Correctional Facility, told Denver7 it does not comment on pending litigation. It's unclear if the three guards named in the lawsuit have retained lawyers at this time.
Mark Fairbairn, a spokesman for the DOC, said the department wouldn't discuss disciplinary matters involving its staff, but confirmed all three named in the suit are still employees of DOC.