First of three parts
MANCHESTER - Inmates and an employee at the Valley Street Jail have received close to $1 million over the last six years to quietly settle claims involving allegations of beatings, improper medical care and sexual discrimination.
The allegations are contained in lawsuits, medical records and a consultant report available in files at federal and state courts. Some victims have won cases at trial, including inmates awarded more than $244,000 in damages and attorney fees for conditions in the segregated housing unit, dubbed The Hole, in 2002.
But more often, Hillsborough County and its insurer have settled lawsuits before going to trial. The settlements include three payments to the estates of people who died at the 724-bed jail.
The largest single settlement involves a $450,000 payment to the parents of Kevin McEvoy, a heroin addict who died of withdrawal-related dehydration in 2008, a time when the jail distributed home remedies of Tylenol, Maalox and Kaopectate for heroin withdrawal.
And Doris Sanabria, a former corrections officer and her lawyers, received a $215,000 settlement, and she went on disability, after she claimed in 2006 to witness fellow corrections officers tie a mentally disturbed inmate to a chair, gawk at her breasts, push pressure points on her neck and head-butt her.
According to county records, settlements between early 2008 to the present amounted to $904,500.
Settlements always include a gag order that forbids recipients to disparage Hillsborough County or the jail.
Several people who have settled, including Sanabria and McEvoy's parents, who live in Massachusetts, would not be interviewed for this article, worried about what effect an interview would have on their settlements.
In settlement papers, Hillsborough County admits no responsibility and says it is settling to avoid litigation. In some cases, the county said the payment was being made to "buy peace" with an inmate.
Jail Superintendent David Dionne said the settlement decisions are made by the county's insurance provider, Primex, not him.
"That's a county business decision," he said of settlements. "It's probably cheaper to settle. Sometimes you have to stand up because they'll keep coming if you don't.
"There are county decisions that have to be made (to settle). I understand that," he said.
Valley Street Jail is now part of an investigation into the broken neck of Elliot Hospital patient Fern Ornelas, who suffered the injury sometime in mid-October during a span in which authorities said he spent some time in the custody of the city police department and some time in the custody of the corrections department. Dionne will not speak about the matter while an investigation is in progress.
Neither the jail nor its medical unit are accredited by national organizations that review operations and determine whether they meet industry standards.
Dionne said the jail follows the standards required by the American Correctional Association; the county just doesn't seek accreditation.
"Why, so we have to pay the extra money to have a piece of paper?" he said.
Dionne said some corrections officers have lost their jobs in the past over the treatment of inmates. But for the most part, the jail is properly run and inmates are treated properly. Many leave the jail better than they were when they entered, given the opportunity to receive education, medical care and a respite from drugs and alcohol, he said.
"It better not," he said when asked whether inmates are abused at Valley Street. "I don't condone it, and my senior staff doesn't condone it."
He said corrections officers work in a facility populated by criminals, many of whom have mental health problems. On occasion, a corrections officer will have feces or urine thrown on him or her, Dionne said.
The jail has won some cases, including four recent cases that went to trial.
All involved inmates awaiting trial on felony-level sexual assault charges involving children; the inmates claimed assault by guards. Dionne said the jail has taken several steps in the last 10 years to improve security and reduce the potential for lawsuits:
-- In 2002-03, cameras were installed throughout much of the jail, including in the day rooms - large rooms with chairs and tables where inmates congregate when outside their cells.
The jail installed the cameras after female inmates filed lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by corrections officers, he said.
None of the suits was successful, but a corrections officer quit because he said he did not want to put his family through such an ordeal again, Dionne said.
-- Two or three years ago, the jail changed its procedures for the way that corrections officers enter an inmate's cell.
Previously, an inmate was instructed to go to the rear of the cell, stand, face the wall and follow instructions while the corrections officers searched the cell or took other actions, Dionne said.
Several lawsuits claim beatings took place inside the cell, beyond the view of cameras. Now the inmate kneels at the front of the cell when a search takes place.
-- Dionne said corrections officers log all activity in journals. However, journal entries are recorded on paper. For several years, Dionne has sought $400,000 in funding for a computer system that would make it easier to record and retrieve information about jail operations.
"Everybody's a possible lawsuit against us, everybody that comes in here," Dionne said.