Muslim inmates file suit over ‘gassing’ at Sterling prison


Cii Radio| Ayesha Ismail| 25 April 2017| 27 Rajab 1438

A group of inmates at Sterling Correctional Facility filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Monday afternoon alleging that they were attacked by a corrections officer over their religion last year.

The civil complaint filed by David Lane and Michael Fairhurst, attorneys with Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP of Denver, Zachary Warren of Highlands Law Firm, LLC and Igor Raykin of Kishinevsky & Raykin, LLC, lists Donell Blount, Cecil Mason and Terry Phillips as plaintiffs and names three defendants: Ethan Kellogg, David Scherbarth and one listed only by the last name Quinlan, all of whom are identified as corrections officers.

The complaint alleges that Kellogg “wanted to punish” a group of Muslim state prisoners for their religious beliefs, and on April 15, 2016, sprayed oleoresin capsicum gas, aka pepper spray, in a room where they were scheduled to gather for a prayer service, then closed the door until the inmates arrived. Exposure to the gas exacerbated Blount’s asthma and caused all of the plaintiffs to leave the room “gasping for air,” where they allegedly encountered Kellogg laughing at them, the complaint states.

Prior to that, Blount allegedly went to the classroom where the group regularly held Jumu’ah and found Kellogg using the space for a “boot exchange,” to allow inmates to exchange faulty or worn-out uniforms. Kellogg refused to move the boot exchange to the table outside the classroom and sent Blount back to his housing unit. Later, with less than 30 minutes left in the scheduled slot for the prayer service, the Muslim inmates were directed back to the classroom and decided to proceed “despite having an insufficient amount of time to conduct a meaningful service,” the complaint alleges. When they entered the room, the pepper spray “caused immediate and intense burning to the Plaintiff’s nose, throat, and skin, among other things.”

After the gas incident, Blount began filing grievances and retained an attorney, at which time Scherbarth allegedly threatened “punitive sanctions,” the complaint continues. “Plaintiff Blount was then stripped of certain privileges, reclassified to a higher security level, sent to administrative segregation without due process, all at Defendant Scherbarth’s retaliatory behest, and was also arbitrarily threatened by Defendants and other officers on numerous occasions,” it states.

Blount also claims to have suffered further retaliation at the hands of Quinlan, who allegedly “physically assaulted Plaintiff Blount while he was handcuffed, resulting in internal bleeding as evidenced by blood in his urine.” Blount’s account is that he did not receive treatment by medical staff for the injuries he suffered.

The complaint seeks relief for violations of the first, eighth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as use of excessive force, equal protection violation and RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) violation. The inmates have requested a jury trial.

Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Fairbairn, when contacted for a comment on the incident, said the department does not comment on active litigation.

Mason is serving a 16-year sentence out of Denver County. He is scheduled for a parole hearing in March of 2020, and has an estimated mandatory release date of May 12, 2024.

Phillips, 34, is serving a 25-year sentence out of Denver County. He is scheduled for a parole hearing in March of 2018, and has an estimated mandatory release date of July 17, 2024.

Information about Blount was not available; Lane said Blount is a Virginia inmate serving his sentence in Colorado.
According to the complaint, all three plaintiffs “were practicing Muslims with sincerely-held beliefs in Islam, and Plaintiff Blount served as a leader within the Muslim community at SCF,” at the time of the incident.