Complaint alleges a Colorado jail guard pepper-gassed a room of Muslim inmates

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A corrections officer in a Colorado prison gassed a room full of Muslim inmates at the Sterling Correctional Facility in part because of their religion, a complaint filed today in U.S. District Court alleges.

The complaint, filed this afternoon by Denver attorney David Lane of Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, says that on April 15 of last year, Muslim inmates at Sterling Correctional Facility were to attend a weekly two-hour Islamic congregational prayer service. When they arrived at the classroom where the service was usually conducted, they found a correctional officer using it for a “Boot Exchange” program that allows inmates to exchange worn-out uniforms and equipment. The exchange, the complaint said, is usually set up in the hallway.

The lawsuit says the plaintiffs asked the officer to move so they could begin service, he “became hostile in response, refused to relocate them, and commanded the inmates to return to their housing unit in B-Pod.”

Some time later, the inmates were directed via intercom announcement to return to the classroom to conduct services. The same correctional officer opened the door for them. According to the complaint:

Upon entering the room, the Muslim prisoners were immediately engulfed by a cloud of oleoresin capsicum gas (“OC Gas”), also known as pepper spray. The OC Gas caused immediate and intense burning to the Plaintiff’s nose, throat, and skin, among other things, and also exacerbated [the plaintiff’s] asthma, forcing him to use a rescue inhaler to avert what could have been an otherwise life-threatening situation. As the Plaintiff inmates streamed out of Classroom A, gasping for air, they saw the Defendant … laughing at them, apparently pleased with himself for having released a full blast of pepper spray into the relatively small room immediately prior to the Muslim inmates entering because and only because they were Muslim. Defendant … later admitted to discharging his OC Gas canister in Classroom A immediately before the Plaintiff Muslim inmates entered the area.

After filing a grievance, “one of the inmates was threatened with being put into solitary confinement if he retained counsel and he was subsequently beaten,” Lane said in a statement.

Reached by phone around 4:30 p.m. Monday, Sterling Correctional Facility information officer Raymond Higgins said he had not heard about the complaint or the alleged incident. We will update this with a response to the complaint if the facility has one.

Photo by Coral Springs Talk for Creative Commons on Flickr.

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