UNION Press Conference

December 4, 2009 Sacramento State Capitol

Wrongful death lawsuit victory against the California Department of Corrections

Attorney David Springfield
of Abraham Goldman and Associates successfully litigated the wrongful death lawsuit of Joseph Sullivan.


The Death of Joseph J. Sullivan

Joseph John Sullivan, age 26, died on June 4, 2006.

Joseph was found hanging from strips of bed sheet in the Administrative Segregation unit in cell 150 at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, a prison near Blythe, California. Frequently Blythe sets the record for the highest daily temperature in the United States.

Chuckawalla is one of California’s handful of “desert institutions”–prisons acknowledged as being entirely inappropriate for inmates with mental health conditions on heat-sensitive medications because of the excessive heat in the desert in the summer months. Joseph was an inmate who received mental health care for a psychosis and had been put on a powerful heat-sensitive psychotropic medication, called Zyprexa by the Prison’s psychiatrist, Dr. Roth approximately 6 weeks prior to his death. Joseph was not promptly transferred as he should have been to another (and cooler) facility.

The investigation of Joseph’s death has taken more than three years and has uncovered extremely harsh confinement conditions at Chuckawalla that amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Joseph’s Eighth Amendment rights, and also directly in violation of orders dealing with psychotropic heat risk medications, mandated as a result of the Coleman Class Action Case as early as 1992–the so-called “Heat Plans” 1

Joseph was housed for weeks on end in temperatures near or in excess of 120 degrees. Two former inmates, who were housed in the cell directly next to Joseph, testified in this case that they could literally fry sandwich meat on the wall or make beef-jerky out of it, and that if you put your hand on the wall (which was concrete and most of the day directly in the sunlight from the outside) your hand would literally burn!

Joseph was confined alone in his hot cell for more than 7 weeks without being allowed outside in the yard, not even once, all this time being on Zyprexa which is a heat-risk drug for which very specific orders are to be followed: Inmates are to be transferred and are to be housed in the coolest cells, provided water, ice, showers, etc. These orders were systematically ignored.

Dr. Roth, the psychiatrist prescribing the Zyprexa completely ignored the orders as well, even though he admitted that the inmates complained all the time about the heat, and that it was “hot as hell” in there...

1The Heat Plans came into being after a several needless deaths in Vacaville in 1991 and lead to a stipulated agreement in the Coleman case between the California Department of Corrections and the Coleman plaintiffs. The Honorable U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, as well as two Magistrate Judges (Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows and Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds) signed off on the Heat Plans on May 7, 1992. The Coleman case is now up on appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Worse, the evidence of the extreme heat at the time of Joseph’s death has been systematically covered up by memorandum after memorandum denying the heat in the first place! According to the “Heat Logs” maintained by the prison–also mandated under Coleman–the inside temperatures were always a comfortable 79-81 degrees!

According to Chuckawalla Valley State Prison there was never a need to worry about heat-risk inmates because it was a pleasant, shady, cool oasis in the desert and the temperatures never reached the threshold of 90 degrees inside.

These phony memos were provided to the people in charge of monitoring the compliance with the Coleman heat plans at the headquarters in Sacramento, and thus have served directly to cover up the true conditions at Chuckawalla and the prison’s failure to comply with the court mandated Heat Plans.

Possibly the first time since Judge Karlton entered the May 11, 1992 Heat Order mandating “accurate and faithfully” monitoring of temperatures “in non-air conditioned living areas where a heat-risk inmate resides” was the question directly asked at what exact location the prison personnel at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison measure the temperatures in their administrative segregation building. The answer was simple: at the place furthest from the actual cells ... It is now finally admitted that the temperatures measured bear absolutely no relationship to the actual temperatures in the cells...

Joseph died in gruesome nightmarish conditions that can barely be imagined. The neighboring inmates forcefully testified that their summer months at Chuckawalla were the worst time of their lives. They sought help for Joseph and offered some of their yard time up, but it was not granted. They also notified prison personnel that Joseph was talking about suicide and that he should be checked out. This happened several times, and on the evening of his death Joseph’s neighbor warned personnel for a third time: “Please check out cell 150...he is talking about suicide!”

But it was brushed off and they kept on walking...

And they are still walking...

David Springfield, Attorney at Law



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