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Denver Artist Dan Chapman Sues Prison System Over Losing Use of Hand

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A prominent Denver painter and video artist is suing the Colorado Department of Corrections, claiming that inadequate post-surgical treatment has left him with little use of his right hand.

The complaint filed in federal court on behalf of Dan Ellier Chapman alleges that the conduct of prison medical staff displayed "such conscious or callous indifference" to his pain and medical needs "as to rise to a level repugnant to the conscience of a reasonable person." 

Chapman, 56, is best known in Denver art circles for his gritty, photorealist portraits of street life. Westword art critic Michael Paglia listed him alongside Colin Livingston, Clark Reichert, Linda Fleming and other mainstays in a piece on "Ten Artists Who Left Their Mark on Colorado in 2010." But Chapman also has had problems with the law, mostly misdemeanor or minor felony theft charges. In 2012 he pleaded guilty to motor vehicle theft in Boulder and was sentenced to four years in prison.  

According to the complaint, Chapman suffers from Dupuytren's Disease, a thickening of the fibrous tissue under the skin of the palm and fingers. He had surgery to help restore mobility to his left hand a year before being sent to prison; the increasing stiffness of his right hand ultimately led DOC to approve surgery on that hand as well. 

"You have to do extensive physical therapy after the surgery," says Chapman's attorney, Blake Embry. "He was well aware of that. And [prison officials] assured him that he would have access to the aftercare required."

Chapman's surgery was performed at Denver Health Medical Center. Plans for his post-operative care called for him to be housed at the infirmary in DOC's  Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center and to receive pain medication. Instead, Embry says, his client "came to in a two-man cell without any pain medication. To wake up without any pain meds after this procedure is like someone taking a shotgun and blowing your hand off."

The lawsuit claims that Chapman was never seen by a prison doctor after the surgery and that other staff "yelled and screamed at him" when he complained about the lack of treatment. It also alleges that prison medical personnel ignored not just his need for medication but the entire treatment regimen involving splinting and physical therapy, leaving his right hand in a "clenched position."

"It's a claw," says Embry. "He can't close his hand now. For the kind of art that he does, that precision is no longer there."

Chapman is now on parole. State attorneys have not yet responded to the complaint, which was filed yesterday. 

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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