ACLU sues prison over tear gas incident at jail

For 20 to 30 minutes, the estimated 150 inmates in the Olympus wing of the Utah State Prison thought they were going to die.

On August 3, 2011, at approximately 4 p.m., prison guards deployed tear gas against a single, unarmed inmate. The tear gas infiltrated the ventilation system and into the cells of the Olympus Wing, the prison’s special area for people with mental disabilities.

Used Tear Gas Cannister
Used Tear Gas Cannister

When the gasping prisoners were finally freed from their cells, the prison guards discouraged the inmates from seeking medical treatment, making alleged disparaging remarks such as “any of you sissies need help?”

The incident is at the center of a new class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah on June 3, which accuses the prison of violating the Eighth Amendment and various laws under the Utah Constitution.

“The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution mandates that prisoners must not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment,” said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, in a news release. “We assert that the prison’s actions in this case—from the reckless use of the gas, to the slow and insufficient response while the prisoners were being exposed, to the inadequate treatment of the affected inmates—amounted to a violation of that guarantee.”

After the incident, the prison allegedly shut down phones for two days and took other steps to actively conceal the incident.

Even more harmful to the inmates was the prison’s alleged failure to provide adequate medical treatment, even to inmates who suffered lung problems and panic attacks from incidents. In fact, the lawsuit alleges, the prisons only encouraged inmates to receive medical treatment in emergency situations and imposed prohibitively high costs to inmates seeking care.

“This incident is an egregious civil rights violation committed by the Utah State Prison against a vulnerable, albeit unpopular and largely forgotten class of American citizens,” said Aaron Kinikini attorney for the Disability Law Center, in the news release. “The Disability Law Center is fully supportive of ACLU of Utah’s advocacy on behalf of prison inmates with disabilities and the broader principle that prison walls do not form a barrier between inmates and the basic protections afforded by our Constitution.”