Year in Review: Prisoner lawsuits beg attention

The Madison County Record Dec. 29, 2006, 4:33am

Court access for all citizens, including convicts, is the bedrock of the American justice system.

From time to time the Record reports on lawsuits being filed in federal court by prisoners doing time for their crimes.

While hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such cases are filed in federal court every year, our reporting has focused on those coming into the Southern District of Illinois.

The following is a sampling of lawsuits we have reported in the last year.

Inmate suing warden for losing $60 worth of stuff during transfer
By Steve Gonzalez

An inmate filed a civil complaint against a prison warden because his handkerchief and sweat pants were lost while he was being transferred to his new home at a maximum security facility.

According to the complaint filed in February in federal court, Richard Sutton claims warden Randy Davis is responsible for his lost personal property, which also included a photo album, address book and personal papers. Sutton is seeking damages in excess of $5,000.

Sutton claims his handkerchief was worth one dollar, while his address book and 12 photos were valued at $14.50. His sweat pants were worth $15, while his personal papers were worth $25.

Sutton claims that on Aug. 3, 2005, he was being transferred to Marion from the prison in Beaumont, Texas, however when he arrived several items were missing.

Seeking a bench trial, Sutton is seeking an order directing the Warden to pay the total sum of the missing property in an amount in excess of $5,000.

The case was assigned to District Judge David Herndon.

Rasta man sues prison for restraining him while dreadlocks lopped
By Steve Gonzalez

An inmate at the Menard Correctional Center filed a civil rights complaint in federal court in March against the Illinois Department of Corrections alleging he was forcefully restrained in order to have his dreadlocks cut off.

Derrick Echols claims that on March 23, 2005, after arriving at Menard he was placed in segregation because of his hairstyle. He claims he was told he would be forcefully restrained by the tactical unit if he did not comply with Menard's grooming policy that does not allow dreadlocks.

Echols, 26, is serving a life sentence for a murder that took place in Peoria in January 2001.

According to Echols, he did not comply with the policy due to certain religious beliefs. He claims he is a Rastafarian or Rasta man.

"The trimmers were cutting and biting my scalp and made my head bleed a little bit," Echols wrote in his hand-written complaint.

He also wrote, "I has razor burns and bites and bumps because of the excessive force used upon my head. As they were cutting my dreadlocks I felt a lot of pain in my scalp because the clippers was snagging and pulling stands of hair out."

Echols claims after his haircut he has scars on his head and his scalp constantly itches. He also claims he asked to see the doctor, which was allegedly never provided, because he was having nightmares of the orange crush taking him for his hair cut.

Echols does not state an amount he wishes to be compensated, however he also is asking the court to review the policy because other inmates are also being forced to have their hair cut to be in compliance with the grooming policy.

The case has been assigned to District Judge James Foreman.

Prisoner seeks $12 million for effects of second hand smoke
By Steve Gonzalez

Serving a 100-year rape and robbery sentence, a prisoner at maximum security Menard Correctional Center in Chester is seeking in excess of $12.1 million from 11 prison employees claiming he is constantly subjected to high levels of tobacco smoke.

Edward Hanks claims that since his incarceration he has made numerous attempts to let the staff know that the prison's environmental tobacco smoke seriously affects his health. He filed his complaint in U.S. District Court for Southern Illinois on March 3.

Hanks is housed in the protective custody unit.

Known as the "Austin rapist," Hanks was convicted of raping and robbing a 35-year-old Chicago-area woman in 1997. He was suspected in the attacks of seven women on the city's West Side in 1991 and 1992.

According to Hanks, he takes medication for high blood pressure and has repeatedly told the staff that his exposure to the smoke causes high fevers, headaches, chest pains and shortness of breath.

He also claims that the high levels of smoke are higher in the protective custody unit than those in the general population unit which subject him to cruel and unusual punishment.

According to his complaint, he was told that he could check himself out of protective custody if he wanted to get away from the smoke.

"In essence, the defendants' position is that I should forfeit the right of safety for good health provisions," Hanks writes.

Hanks claims his constitutional rights are also being violated because the recreational yard provided for inmates in protective custody is smaller than the yard for general population inmates, and it only has one set of weights.

He also claims that there is no toilet in the yard. Inmates are required to relieve themselves in a corner "that has become foul," Hanks claims.

He also claims the drinking container that is provided for them becomes contaminated because inmates do not wash their hands after using the restroom.

According to Hanks, on one occasion he had "wasted" on himself in the yard due to illness which embarrassed him greatly.

Hanks further alleges that there are a lack of jobs, educational programs and time to visit the legal library in the protective custody unit.

"I seek an injunction and judgment against all the defendants, an order that compels defendants to discontinue the unconstitutional practice that effects my health when housed with smokers," Hanks writes.

Hanks also is seeking a toilet in the yard and $100,000 from each defendant and $1 million in punitive damages from each defendants

The case has been assigned to Chief District Judge G. Patrick Murphy.

Civil rights complaint seeks $400 billion in damages
By Steve Gonzalez

An East St. Louis man who sought $100 trillion from Texas public officials in a civil rights lawsuit filed last year, brought another complaint against high ranking Missouri figures on April 21.

But this time, Jeffrey O'Quinn is only asking for $100 billion each from Governor Matt Blunt, St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and Commissioner of the Family Court Division Anne Marie Clarke.

In a handwritten complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, O'Quinn alleges the defendants violated his 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendment rights provided by the U.S. Constitution. He also is seeking an investigation into each defendant's office.

In November 2005, O'Quinn sued Texas Governor Rick Perry and other state officials, as well as ExxonMobil executives, alleging his civil rights were violated because he allegedly was not allowed to peacefully assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. He also claimed cruel and unusual punishment and that he had been deprived of life, liberty or property without due process.

That case is currently stalled as O'Quinn is waiting for the U.S. Marshall's Service to serve the lawsuit to the defendants.

In his new case, O'Quinn claims police officers made false reports and treated him unprofessionally.

He also claims police failed to protect him from being shot three different times by assailant Fred Griffin.

According to his complaint, O'Quinn was shot by Griffin at 1530 Locust St. in St. Louis on July 4, 2005.

O'Quinn claims that before the incident he called police "time and time again" regarding Griffin, but nothing was done until he called a police lieutenant and detective.

He claims that while he complied with a police request to go to the circuit attorney's warrant office he saw a copy of the July 4, 2005 police report. O'Quinn claims he told police the report contained false information.

O'Quinn claims that Jennifer Joyce was unprofessional with her conduct and violated his civil rights, but does not state a reason to base his allegation.

He claims that Governor Blunt's office also violated his civil rights by tampering with his complaint.

The complaint states that Chief Mokwa's office was unprofessional for allegedly telling him that if he calls back he will be arrested.

O'Quinn is representing himself in the case.

His case has been assigned to District Judge David Herndon.

Serving time for sexual assault, inmate declares hunger strike over prison conditions
By Steve Gonzalez

An inmate serving a 28-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault filed a civil rights complaint in federal court May 8, alleging that prison officials at the Menard penitentiary in Chester failed to make Menard a safer environment for him.

Charles Sharp alleges that on March 16, another inmate threatened him with bodily harm if he was to go to the chow hall to eat.

He claims he declared a hunger strike, but it was not documented.

"I am currently in Protective Custody (PC), for fear of my life and safety being a former gang member I wanted out and the gang had a hit out on me and now while in PC, I am still forced to live in fear," Sharp wrote in his handwritten complaint.

He claims that after 24 hours of not eating, he was officially placed on hunger strike status and will not come off the hunger strike until he speaks with Internal Affairs and put in kick-out status.

Sharp claims the staff has been made aware of his situation, but has done nothing, jeopardizing his safety.

Sharp claims that three days into his hunger strike, he attempted to climb back into his bed when he lost his footing while becoming faint and dizzy striking his head on the bunk.

According to Sharp, he was taken to the Health Care Unit and was forced to urinate, and then in restraints, was forced to walk barefoot to a holding cell where he was ridiculed by officers at the prison for being a satan worshipper.

Sharp claims that officers at Menard failed to document his hunger strike, which caused him to become dizzy and fall causing an egg shaped knot on his forehead in which no aspirin or ibuprofen was administered.

Sharp is seeking damages in excess of $800,000 in damages, an order of protection keeping corrections officers away from him, a transfer to Pontiac penitentiary and any other relief he may be entitled too.

The case has been assigned to Chief District Judge G. Patrick Murphy.

Cell lacks emergency button, prisoner claims in suit
By Steve Gonzalez

A Menard Penitentiary inmate serving 20 years in prison for second degree murder claims his constitutional rights were violated because his cell was not equipped with an emergency button.

Eric Ware, convicted in Cook County in 2000, claims he was unable to yell for help because he was breathless from an asthma attack on Dec. 17, 2005.

According to Ware's handwritten complaint filed in federal court, fellow inmates heard him struggling and began yelling for help, however officials did not respond for 20 minutes. Ware claims he suffered chest pains when a breathing treatment would have prevented a full asthma attack.

Ware claims the warden, Alan Uchtman, refused to have emergency buttons installed and a special setting for inmates with asthma.

He claims suffered another asthma attack on Jan. 16 due to his cell's ventilation system being clogged with dust. Ware claims his cell temperature was 49 degrees and the medical team took five to 10 minutes to respond while he lay gasping for air.

Ware claims on April 18, he was in segregation behind a steel door with temperatures near 80 when he suffered yet another asthma attack due to the lack of ventilation.

On March 22, while he was in segregation, Ware claims he asked a corrections officer for his asthma pump because he was having breathing complications. Ware claims the officer refused to get the medical team because he had made a smart remark to the officer earlier.

"One particular morning it was so cold that a thin layer of ice rested in plaintiff's toilet, and there was no thermostats and no heat at all," Ware wrote in his June 15 complaint.

Ware also claims the law librarian, Krista Schorn, began yelling at him because she was angry that he filed suit against her in Randolph County and because he misspelled her name on the suit.

He claims Schorn would not allow him to copy legal documents which caused him to miss several court deadlines which caused two of his civil appeals for cruel and unusual punishment to be dismissed.

Ware also alleged Schorn lied to prison officials by falsely telling them he cursed her out which caused him to be placed in segregation once again.

He also alleges that Menard counselor Regina Summers refused to allow him to make a phone call to his attorney.

Ware claims he had a court deadline and had recently won a small settlement but his family stole the money and he wanted his attorney to seek criminal charges against them.

Ware is seeking $20,000 in compensatory damages from Alan Uchtman plus $5,000 in punitive damages, $15,000 each from the officer who denied him his asthma pump and the law librarian and $2,000 from the counselor for a total amount of $57,000.

The case has been assigned to Chief District Judge G. Patrick Murphy

African Hebrew Israelite inmate claims religious freedom being violated
By Steve Gonzalez

A Lawrence Correctional Center inmate serving a 25-year sentence for home invasion filed suit in federal court claiming the prison violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and his right to practice religion.

BenYeHudah Whitfield, an African Hebrew Israelite, claims the prison refused to accommodate his religious requests and institute services and programs central to his religion.

Whitfield is seeking a court order preventing the prison from violating his religious freedom and also is seeking $1 million in punitive damages.

He claims inmates of other faith groups and African Hebrew Israelites in other prisons are given a better variety of nutritional and dietary products because of class differentiation.

Whitfield also claims he has not been provided with a Torah and other religious information that is critical to proper observation of his religion.

He further claims that he was required to get a health immunization while observing the Sabbath.

The case has been assigned to Chief District Judge Patrick Murphy.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois Department of Corrections
1301 Concordia Ct
Springfield, IL 62702

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