Christopher Lopez's case demonstrates the sheer ineptness that exists in our prison system

San Carlos Correctional Facility
San Carlos Correctional Facility

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.)

Christopher Lopez
Lopez on the floor of his cell

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.

Christopher Lopez
Guards finally enter Lopez’s cell with weapons drawn.
Christopher Lopez
Lopez stripped to his boxers and shackled to a chair

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.” 

Christopher Lopez
Lopez lying on the floor of his cell after being removed from the restraint chair.

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.

 

10 COMMENTS

  1. I just couldn’t believe what I was watching when I saw the 40 minute version of the police video. I have some medical training, but it’s mostly first-aid/first-response type things, and even with my minimal knowledge I could tell that guy was sick. His breathing was off, he couldn’t move well, he was seizing, and that nurse… I’ve seen less incompetence and apathy with MAs in the Navy. What the absolute hell.

  2. Appalling ignorance and cruelty to do nothing while someone is suffering and having a seizure. Clearly a reckless disregard for life. Those people are criminals

  3. Que triste realidad, e indiferencia hacia la urgente necesidad de un enfermo mental por lesiones causadas en una sociedad apática a las necesidades esenciales de un niño sano.
    razones causantes del desequilibrio e inadaptacion social, por no tener la asistencia para vivir en una sociedad criminal también
    Deberían castigar a todos los culpables de semejante injusticia, y dolorosa situación que pasó sin ayuda de nadie.

  4. I cannot believe what I watched just moments ago.

    A man wearing only a ragged pair of shorts, lying on a cold prison floor with his hands shackled to his sides. He was OBVIOUSLY in distress because of the sounds he was making when he attempted to sit up.

    I know the officers had to have heard him. They had to have seen him struggling to get up. The officers involved in this tragedy are a disgrace to the badge and deserve everything that is thrown at them.

    No matter what Christopher did to get put in prison, he did not deserve what happened to him. What I saw was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen. I watched the entire video to the point where he took his last breath. I kept thinking to myself that this man is going to die in a prison cell, half naked and on a cold floor, all alone with no one to care for him in his time of need.

    Well brother, you’re in a much better place now.
    No more worries…
    No more tears…

  5. THIS WAS ONE OF THE SADDEST MOST RIDICULOUS THINGS IVE EVER SEEN/HEARD OF IN REGARDS TO THE PRISON/MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM. THERE IS NECESSARY DIVIDE THAT WE HAVE BEEN SWEEPING OVER FOR DECADES AND IT NEEDS TO STOP. THE THINGS THIS COUNTRY WILL SPEND MONEY ON IS REALLY ASTOUNDING WHEN YOU CONSIDER ALL THAT IS LEFT IN THE DARK. THIS TAKING PLACE SO RECENTLY IS REALLY FRIGHTENING. DOES ANYONE WITHOUT MONEY GET TO BE TREATED LIKE A HUMAN BEING OR ARE THERE NO HUMAN BEINGS IN CHARGE OUT THERE?

  6. i am appalled by what happened to poor Christopher Lopez. He should never have received a four year prison sentence for kicking a guard in the groin during a severe psychotic episode most likely brought on by the long periods he spent in solitary confinement. Those guards and nurses were in charge of his care and what they did is, in the eyes of the law, DEPRAVED INDIFFERENCE. They should all be imprisoned for manslaughter or worse. I hope they all get a taste of what Mr. Lopez experienced in our correctional institutions.INEXCUSABLE.

  7. Lopez should not have been in jail. He should have been in a mental hospital. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but our judicial system is still in the dark ages.

Leave a Comment