A lawsuit claims that guards at a Colorado prison pepper-sprayed Muslim inmates gathering for a prayer service and later assaulted one of them in retaliation for his plans to pursue the matter in court. The attorney behind the suit calls the actions a hate crime and sees a connection between them and the type of rhetoric that currently emanates from the White House.
"When you have a president who is making war on Muslims, this is to be expected," says David Lane, the driving force behind the Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition, a group dedicating to fighting what they see as the Trump agenda. "He has now given permission to all of the people who wish to engage in this kind of behavior. And when they embrace that permission, this is the result."
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Sterling Correctional Facility inmates Donell Blount, Cecil Mason and Terry Phillips, while the defendants are a trio of corrections officers: Ethan Kellogg, David Scherbarth and Quinlan; the latter staffer's first name doesn't appear in the complaint, which is on view below.
According to the suit, Blount regularly oversaw Jumu’ah, a Muslim prayer service, on Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. But just prior to start time on April 15, 2016, he went to the classroom where the service took place to find Kellogg already there; he was conducting a so-called "boot exchange" program that allowed inmates to swap out old uniforms or equipment.
A Facebook photo of David Scherbarth.
The exchange typically took place at a table in the hallway, and the suit says Blount asked Kellogg to use it so the prayer service could go forward as usual.
In response, Kellogg allegedly "became upset and hostile and ordered [Blount] to return to his housing unit." Then, at 2:37 p.m., an intercom announcement called Blount and the other worshipers to the classroom. Upon their arrival, the complaint states that "the Plaintiffs felt a searing sensation in their noses, throats, eyes and all over their exposed skin. The Plaintiffs realized almost immediately that the room was saturated with OC Gas. The Plaintiffs felt engulfed by the gas and quickly became overwhelmed" — especially Blount, who suffers from asthma.
The trio soon fled the classroom, where they reportedly spotted Kellogg "laughing at them and otherwise antagonizing the entire group."
Afterward, Blount filed a grievance against Kellogg, and on March 22, 2017, he was called to Scherbarth's office to discuss it. When Scherbarth heard that Blount had contacted an attorney, the lawsuit says, the officer threatened him with retribution; the quotes attributed to Scherbarth at the meeting and other officers over the preceding days include "Life would be hard," "We're gonna have your ass in the hole" and "They gonna fucking torture you."
A verbal confrontation between Scherbarth and Blount followed, with the inmate subsequently being hauled away by other officers. Among them was Quinlan, who is accused of responding to Blount's refusal to drop the case by delivering "several forceful, closed-fist blows to the mid-section of the Plaintiff's torso." Shortly thereafter, the lawsuit maintains, Blount was "placed in solitary confinement and denied access to timely medical care, despite the fact that he had blood in his urine for an eighteen-hour period following this assault."
Terry Phillips is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Colorado Department of Corrections via 7News
In Lane's view, these incidents go beyond mere abusive treatment on the part of the defendants.
"A hate crime is defined as committing a crime when the motivation is someone's ethnicity, race, religion, etc.," he says. "And here we have guards who committed criminal assaults and who were motivated by the victims' religion."
The lawsuit is the first the Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition has filed in federal court, and Lane reveals that there will be more to come. "We have two lawsuits that are about to be filed, both involving abusive police conduct — and one is clearly based on race."
The reaction to the lawsuit by members of the public reflects Trump-era divisiveness, Lane believes. "The readers' comments on the Denver Post story are enough to make you lose hope for America," he allows. "People who comment about online stories are generally so far to the right it's ridiculous. It's a deplorable segment of society."
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He adds that the mainstreaming of such responses contributes to "the mentality that these guards think they can do that and get away with it — and the reason they feel that way is because they can. But it's time to change that mentality."
Here's the lawsuit.