Christopher Lopez's case demonstrates the sheer ineptness that exists in our prison system
On March 1, 2013, Christopher Lopez died on a cold concrete floor of a prison cell at San Carlos Correctional Facility. He did not die alone in his cell, but in front of several guards that deemed his unresponsive state a behavioral problem. Only Mr. Lopez was not being uncooperative, he was experiencing a serious medical event.
His death was fully preventable yet the guards stood by chattering about their Saturday night plans. The story below, as laid out by attorneys for the Lopez family and supported by prison video, illustrates what happens when mentally ill patients are forced into a system ill-equipped to deal with them.
Christopher Lopez was born on July 5, 1977, in Portland, Oregon. He lost his father at a young age due to cancer. After his father’s death, life took a tragic turn for Lopez as he watched his mother suffer at the hands of abusive boyfriends. Lopez would attempt to protect his mother only to have the abuser turn his rage on Lopez himself. By the age of 15 Lopez had dropped out of school and left home.
After leaving home Lopez spent most of his late teens and early twenties incarcerated for a series of minor, nonviolent offenses. In 2005, while incarcerated, Lopez was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered from what his therapist described as “paranoid delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations and believes he is Jesus Christ.” Schizophrenia often strikes males in their late teens and early twenties. It is often suppressed by medications and therapy but no cure exists per se.
Lopez suffered more than a dozen psychotic episodes after his initial diagnosis and was involuntarily institutionalized at one of only two existing (for the entire state of Colorado) state mental hospitals twelve times over the next eight years. In 2006, Lopez was incarcerated at the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) on a two-year sentence for trespassing. While serving this sentence he assaulted a guard during a psychotic episode and was returned to the state mental facility to serve the rest of his sentence. Upon release he was tried for the assault against the guard and sentenced to four more years to be served at CDOC.
It is during this last incarceration that Lopez’s mental health began a rapid deterioration. He was again referred to the state mental hospital. After a short stay he was released back into CDOC custody which promptly transferred him to San Carlos Correctional Facility (SCCF). SCCF is specifically designed to deal with mentally ill prisoners which should have meant the facility is staffed with employees trained to deal with a mentally ill population. Instead it is in this facility that Lopez was allowed to die on a cold concrete floor while several staffers stood by and watched.
(Warning the photos below may be disturbing to some people.)
At approximately 3:30 a.m., on the night of Lopez’s death, guards found him face down in his cell, partially clothed, and visibly shaking. It is believed that Lopez was suffering one of two Grand Mal seizures at this point. Two guards were sent to tend to Lopez, one was equipped with a video camera that recorded every last moment (including the inept response of the guards) of Lopez’s life. One guard stood on the outside of the cell and through the food slot ordered Lopez to come to the door. When Lopez failed to respond the guard yelled, again through the slot, for Lopez to look up at the door. Lopez attempted to respond by scooting close to the door but was physically unable to move or speak.
Several more minutes passed with the guards yelling orders at Lopez through the food slot before they left to seek advice from a shift commander. At 3:55 a.m., 25 minutes after Lopez was first spotted on the floor of his cell, permission was given to forcibly remove Lopez and place him on special control status. Special control status is used when prisoners are deemed to be violent or destructive to themselves or others. There is no indication that it was necessary with Lopez and in fact, at this point Lopez was incapable of even small movements.
Before Lopez was removed from his cell, one last attempt was made to get him to comply with the guards orders. However, at this point Lopez was near death and completely unresponsive. Protocol dictates that when a prisoner is removed from his cell by guards at SCCF a “use of force” report is filled out. The guard report for the night of Lopez’s death indicates that the guards found Lopez “psychologically intimidating” because of Mr. Lopez’s “unknown intentions for refusal of orders and past SCCF history,” that Mr. Lopez was verbally non-complaint because he “would not comply with numerous orders to come to the door and cuff up,” and that Mr. Lopez engaged in “passive resistance” because he “refused to acknowledge staff directives and would only lay on the floor.”
Over an hour after Lopez was first noticed on the floor of his cell, a six-member team in full riot gear prepared to enter his cell. They proceeded to drag him out of his cell. Ordered him to “stop resisting” even though at this point the video appears to show Lopez to be limp. Eventually Lopez was stripped to his boxers, shackled to a chair and guards pulled a mesh spit hood over his head.
After restraining Lopez, guards left him in the restraint chair and at this point on the video he appears to suffer a seizure. In the video, a point according to the Lopez family that is hard to watch, the guards are standing nearby talking about Walmart and what they plan to do Saturday night. According to the Lopez family’s lawyer, “After a while, they take him out of the restraint chair, but he’s still in full restraint, wearing only his boxer shorts, as he lies on the cold, concrete floor with his head under a toilet. From time to time, you can hear them say, ‘Lopez? Ready to cooperate with us, Lopez?’ And all you can hear is him breathing. If you saw a guy lying on a sidewalk in this condition, the first thing you’d do is call 911 — but they do nothing.”
At one point a nurse actually does enter the cell but not to render aid. She is heard asking “Are you ready for your psych meds now?” According to David Lane, the family’s attorney, “Lopez does not respond. Over the course of the next hour you can literally see Lopez take his last breath on earth. What makes this case particularly galling is that an autopsy revealed that he “died of severe hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in a person’s blood is abnormally low,” which if caught in time is a very treatable condition. There was no reason Lopez had to die from it.
No one deserves to die this way: Alone on a cold, concrete floor suffering from a treatable medical condition. SCCF for its part acknowledges that “things went wrong.” Lane refers to a DOC statement “in which they extend sincere condolences to the family, talk about regretting that the incident occurred and say they’ve fired people as a result of this, disciplined other people and instituted training to make sure it doesn’t happen again, blah blah blah.” It still cannot excuse the fact that SCCF, a facility touted as capable of dealing with mentally ill prisoners, is so criminally ill-equipped that it cannot recognize the difference between a medical event and behavior issues.
The facts in this story are taken from a federal lawsuit and a Denver Westword story on the subject. Click here for the full lawsuit filed and here to read Westword’s story. Please remember that this is an ongoing lawsuit and that SCCF has not admitted guilt nor had any charges been filed against the facility.