By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The mother and father of a mentally ill California prison inmate, who died after being pepper-sprayed in his cell, sued the state correctional system on Thursday, charging that guards failed to help him and tried to cover up the circumstances of his death.
The U.S. District Court lawsuit, filed in Sacramento by the parents of Joseph Duran, 35, comes just weeks after California announced new policies curbing the use of force against mentally ill prisoners in response to a judge's ruling that the state had violated their constitutional rights.
Elaine and Steven Duran allege in their court papers that guards covered up the circumstances of their son's death in part to influence a class-action suit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that led to the ruling.
"If it became known that Duran's death was the result of the gratuitous use of OC pepper spray against a severely mentally ill inmate, then that would dramatically underscore CDCR's problems with its use of force policy as it relates to mentally ill inmates," the lawsuit says.
A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) declined to comment on the Durans' lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages for claims of wrongful death and excessive force. The suit names the CDCR as well as 13 individuals, including the warden of Mule Creek State Prison.
According to the lawsuit, Duran, who was serving a seven-year sentence for robbery and who breathed through a tracheostomy tube in his throat, was pepper-sprayed through a food port in his cell door on Sept. 6, 2013 after refusing to remove his hands from the opening or allow guards to handcuff him.
The lawsuit claims that the painful effects of the pepper spray were "magnified a hundred fold" due to Duran's breathing tube and that he died the following day after blocking the hole in a bid to alleviate the pain.
Duran's parents allege in the court papers that correctional staff created reports designed to obscure how their son had died and cremated his remains without attempting to contact his family first.
The Durans learned of their son's death only four months later when they were contacted by a reporter for the Sacramento Bee newspaper.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)