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Lawsuit raises questions over treatment of mentally ill inmates at Sedgwick County Jail

In the year before jail Deputy Manuel Diaz beat a mentally ill inmate named Edgar Richard Jr. unconscious, Diaz had been involved in 14 use-of-force incidents, a lawsuit says.

Diaz, outweighing Richard by at least 70 pounds, threw more than 20 punches, the lawsuit says. He broke Richard’s jaw, exposing bone. The 25-year-old deputy continued to hit the 59-year-old after he lay unconscious on the cell floor, says the ongoing lawsuit, filed two years ago in federal court in Wichita. The injuries put Richard into an intensive care unit, and his hospital bill came to $628,000.

A lawsuit filed in federal court over Richard’s beating is raising questions about how hundreds of mentally ill inmates are treated in the county jail.

Richard’s son, Ronell Richard, is suing Diaz, Sedgwick County, former Sheriff Gary Steed, current Sheriff Robert Hinshaw, Conmed, the contractor that operates the jail medical clinic, and others.

He is claiming, among other things, that they failed to supervise Diaz and failed to remove or suspend him for excessive force or misconduct.

Arthur Chalmers, an attorney for the sheriffs, has denied the allegations, including an accusation that Richard had been abused by other inmates and by jailers and a contention that Diaz had a bad reputation. Chalmers argued in court documents that “beating” is not the proper term because it “is used in the inflammatory sense.” Chalmers argued that Steed and Hinshaw are “entitled to qualified or absolute immunity from plaintiff’s federal law claims.” The defendants deny that Richard was kept in an “isolation” cell.

Lawyers for Diaz, the county and Conmed declined to comment.

The problem goes beyond Diaz, who pleaded no contest to felony battery of Richard, the lawsuit says. It contends that Richard was among a “highly vulnerable” and “unprotected class” of mentally ill and disabled inmates “currently being denied their civil rights as it relates to treatment for their mental illness.”

Through the lawsuit, the plaintiff aims to get more information to “aid in ultimately protecting the rights of those hundreds of mentally ill inmates currently housed” in the jail. Up to 60 percent of the inmates are mentally ill, the lawsuit says.

Shortly after the beating, a court document says, an inmate told a sheriff’s detective that Richard had been knocking on his cell door, keeping other inmates awake, and they had joked with Diaz: “Just let us in there and beat his ass or something. So Officer Diaz said naw. Plus I don’t like paperwork, you know I’m gonna do it myself. I’m gonna make it worthwhile. …”

Richard, who ended up in a nursing home, died of stomach cancer in February 2010, about two years after Diaz pummeled him.

Another lawsuit

By the time of his beating, in February 2008, Richard was not in touch with reality, partly because he was not taking his medication consistently while in jail, the lawsuit said. His condition also had deteriorated because he was kept in an isolation cell and tormented by other inmates who sprayed a chemical on him, spit on his food and in his face and called him vulgar names, the lawsuit said.

A Conmed medication aide who witnessed the beating said in a deposition that deputies and inmates picked on mentally disabled inmates.

There have been attempts to settle the lawsuit, and no trial date has been set. Lawyers continue to interview witnesses under oath, and the schedule for interviewing witnesses stretches into the fall.

Earlier this month, in another federal court case involving the jail, a jury cleared two Sedgwick County jail deputies who were defendants in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over another inmate’s death, around the same time as Richard’s beating. In that trial, the question was whether the two deputies were deliberately indifferent to inmate Terry Bruner, who died after an infection overwhelmed his body.

In closing arguments in that case, plaintiff attorney Geoffrey Fieger said the case “doesn’t stop with these two jailers,” that it was part of a “systemic wrong.” Fieger, a high-profile lawyer from Detroit, also is listed as one of the plaintiff’s attorneys in the Richard case. Wichita lawyer Larry Wall, who is the lead lawyer in the Richard lawsuit, declined to comment.

Although Diaz was convicted of a felony in the beating and given 18 months of probation for reckless aggravated battery, the Sedgwick County sheriff’s Professional Standards Unit and the FBI cleared Diaz, according to his deposition. How Diaz could be convicted but reportedly cleared in the other investigations is not clear.

The Sheriff’s Office fired Diaz in October 2008 for breaking the law and “conduct unbecoming.”

Steed, who hired Diaz and who was sheriff at the time of the beating, and Hinshaw, who is the current sheriff, knew Diaz had an anger problem and knew he had been involved in use-of-force incidents, the lawsuit said.

Richard’s behavior

Richard had been on Social Security disability for more than 20 years at the time he was injured, and his IQ was low.

In October 2007, Richard, who had convictions for aggravated battery of a law enforcement officer and battery against a correctional officer, was in jail on a probation-violation charge. At the time of his beating, on Feb. 15, 2008, he was awaiting an evaluation of whether he was mentally competent to stand trial.

In jail, Richard acted strangely. Richard, who was African-American, referred to himself as the “Black Jesus,” urinated under his cell door, danced around piles of toilet paper in his cell, stood on his bunk and yelled throughout the night and spoke gibberish over the intercom system.

His mental and physical health deteriorated while he was confined to an isolation cell, the lawsuit said. Jailers and other inmates “often covered the small window of Mr. Richard’s isolation cell with paper while he was confined to it.” He had been in solitary confinement for more than 120 days by the night Diaz struck him, in Pod 7, where about 55 other inmates were housed.

The jail medical clinic dispenses medication, and Richard didn’t always take his.

The lawsuit said jail employees knew he was a mental patient and that he “could be verbally abusive and sometimes act in a threatening manner.”

The combination of his isolation and inconsistent medication affected his mood and actions the night Diaz injured him, the lawsuit said.

In an Eagle article about two weeks after the incident, Hinshaw, then undersheriff, said Richard “started to get unruly and started to leave the cell," that a deputy tried to prevent Richard from leaving, and the altercation occurred. Hinshaw said then that deputies are trained in working with the mentally ill and that the jail meets national standards on correctional health care.

Diaz kept hitting Richard after another deputy asked him to stop, a court document said. A medication aide heard Richard’s bones breaking, and inmates in the commons area of the pod also heard the blows. Richard lost consciousness. Blood covered the floor.

At his sentencing, the lawsuit said, Diaz said, “What I did that day was unreasonable and uncalled for.” He apologized.

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