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Prison Officials Escape Liability for Gassing Inmates

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals called it textbook negligence.

If so, it could well end up in a law school casebook someday. But they'll probably call it the "prison tear-gas case" because that's what happened.

Prison officials accidentally gassed 100 men inside their cells. There was nothing they could do about it then, and according to the appeals court, they can't do a thing about it now.

Accidental Tear Gas

In Redmon v. Crowther, the victims sued officials for an incident that started with one unruly prisoner. It turned into a no-brainer, in a keystone cop sort-of way.

"To subdue the prisoner, prison officials decided to drop CS gas, a commonly used tear gas, into the recreation yard," the judges said. "The plan went awry."

That was an understatement because the gas went through the prison ventilation system instead, causing inmates to suffer burning in their eyes, ears and noses. Adding injury to their injuries, they were already in a section for prisoners with mental and physical health conditions.

"If any of you sissies absolutely need medical treatment, that's fine, but if any of you are just going over there to whine and cry, something to that extent, or say, oh, my eyes hurt or something like that, I'm going to put you on lockdown or see about having you removed from this facility," officer Robert Powell reportedly told them.

Qualfied Immunity

The prisoners sued for civil rights violations, saying officials exposed them to toxic gas and did not provide adequate medical care. A trial judge granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the appeals court affirmed.

"The prison officials' conduct, at most, only accidentally exposed the prisoners to CS gas, and qualified immunity shields government officials from liability for mistakes like this one," the Tenth Circuit said.

Powell, for his part, called in a special operations unit to deal with the rowdy prisoner. He had locked himself in the prison yard and threatened to stab anybody who came to get him.

The guards considered using a shield wall and rubber bullets, but decided tear gas would be the safest option. Apparently, they didn't know a vent in the yard pulled air into the cells and administrative offices as well.

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