Family of mentally ill prisoner says guards ignored his needs, leading to his death

Christopher Lopez died on March 17, 2013

PUEBLO, Colo. - The family of a mentally ill Colorado prison inmate who died while in restraints has filed a lawsuit alleging guards ignored his medical needs.

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday says at least 16 staff members did nothing to help as 35-year-old Christopher Lopez died at the San Carlos prison in March 2013.

"Willful and deliberate indifference to Mr. Lopez’s medical needs directly led to his untimely, easily preventable and unjustifiable death, and Defendants should be prosecuted under Colorado law for the criminally negligent homicide of Christopher Lopez. All his mother and children can do now, however, is to file this lawsuit," the document says.

The suit says guards chained and shackled Lopez after finding him unresponsive on the floor of his cell. The suit says Lopez suffered a series of seizures but guards left him to die face-down on the cell floor.

"His death could have been easily prevented by most of the defendants had any one of them simply picked up a phone and called for medical help," the lawsuit states. "Instead, the Defendants, all employees of the Colorado Department of Corrections, ultimately made what could pass as a documentary film on how to ignore the obvious and serious medical needs of a dying prisoner for hours until the very last breath of life leaves his body."

The suit says the incident was captured on prison cameras and includes several photos.

In some of the photographs, Lopez is seen shirtless and with his wrists handcuffed to a chain around his waist. The stocking over his head is called a "spit mask" in the lawsuit.

According to the suit, the video from prison cameras shows a semi-conscious Lopez being moved into the intake area of the prison, where he is eventually removed from the restraint chair.

"We have a ringside seat to watch Mr. Lopez suffer two grand mal seizures in front of the camera while the Defendants idly stand about and discuss their views about Wal-Mart and other equally important topics," the document states.

After the seizure, the lawsuit alleged that Lopez was left lying face-down while restrained and struggling to breath for hours until his death.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson says the agency cannot comment on pending lawsuits.

She confirmed three employees were fired and five were reprimanded after Lopez's death.

Jacobson provided this statement about the case:

"The Colorado Department of Corrections offers its condolences to the family and friends of Christopher Lopez.  Although, we realize no apology or explanation will replace the loss to his family, we do wish to convey to the family and to the public that the Department does not condone the actions or omissions of the employees involved, which were well outside of the Department’s established training, policies, and practices.

"After this tragic event, the Department thoroughly investigated this matter and swiftly took action against those individuals responsible including termination of a number of those employees directly involved.  Within ten days, the Department put four employees on administrative leave.  In May of 2013, three of those employees were terminated.  An additional five received corrective and/or disciplinary action. 

"After this event, the Department also took steps to ensure that all of the employees at the affected facility received additional focused training on effectively and positively managing these critical events.  While again, these facts do not mitigate the loss to the Lopez family, we wish to remind the public that the acts of certain individuals should not detract from the thousands of dedicated Department employees who vigilantly perform their duties each and every day to ensure the safety of the public and offender population. "

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