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Lawsuit against NDOC seeks answers on man who died while in custody

(Credit: Nevada Department of Corrections)

Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
April 16, 2024

A year after 44-year-old Christian Walker died in prison after being beaten by corrections officers, his family  sued the Nevada Department Corrections over what they say was excessive use of force that led to his death.

But families of people incarcerated in Nevada have warned Walker’s death is not the only instance of excessive use of force within the prison system.

Walker’s mother along with the prison advocacy group Return Strong, which is composed of families of those incarcerated, demanded an investigation into incidents of abuse against inmates during a press conference Friday. 

“The pattern of these abuses are really beginning to cast a shadow over the integrity of the prison system,” said Jodi Hocking, the founder of Return Strong. “We can no longer stand by and just watch what is happening and not create an uproar about it.” 

Christian Walker’s family filed a wrongful death suit April 12.

His family has been trying to get answers ever since he died at High Desert State Prison on April 14, 2023. 

Walker was transferred there from Southern Desert Correctional Center three days before he died. Prior to his death, the lawsuit says he was assaulted by officers who used batons and pepper spray.

“I guarantee you we’re going to find, in part of our lawsuit, that they already destroyed video and photographic evidence to hide their crimes,” said James Urrutia, the attorney representing the family.

Teri Vance, a spokeswoman with the department, said NDOC doesn’t comment on pending litigation. 

Walker’s autopsy report stated he had trauma to his head and neck as well as blood smeared across his face, but ruled the cause of death natural causes.

Urruita said corrections staff “beat him and left him to die in a cell all by himself.”  

The coroner’s findings, Hocking said, has since been independently reviewed by a former Clark County medical examiner.

“He concluded the autopsy was flawed and incorrect,” she said. “The only plausible explanation for Christans death according to him was brain swelling caused by the assault. There was no way this was the result of natural causes as stated in the original autopsy.”

On Friday, Return Strong also called on Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson to initiate an independent public fact finding review of the autopsy report. High Desert State Prison northwest of Las Vegas is in Clark County.

Wolfson said a fact finding review is triggered after an investigation is conducted and submitted to the district attorney’s office for review.

“We have not received any referral from any investigating agency into the death of Mr. Walker,” he said.

Annette Walker, Christian’s mother, said the suit isn’t “seeking vengeance, but I do want to seek answers,” 

“Christian’s death raises questions about the treatment of inmates, about the conditions of the prisons system and the very nature of our justice system, who is in charge and why is no one being held accountable for such horrific behavior against human rights,” she said.  

Her son, she said, wasn’t perfect. 

In the 25 years her son was incarcerated, she said he had made strides to turn his life around, which included “turning to faith and becoming a minister.” 

“He dreamed of the day he would walk free, eager to share his journey and contribute to society. And to live the rest of his life as a testimony of the power of change and forgiveness,” she said. “Christian’s life was cut short under circumstances no human being should ever have to go through.” 

Urrutia said other families of those who are incarcerated tell similar stories of inhumane treatment, including not receiving medical care or having basic needs met.

That includes Ruben Tovar, whose son is incarcerated at Ely State Prison 

Tover, who spoke alongside Annette Walker, said on his transit to the facility last summer, his son “suffered grotesque violence, abuse and torture at the hands of the very people entrusted to keep him safe as humanely possible.”

During the ride, Tover said the bus pulled over at a gas station for 45 minutes. 

“A guard turned up the heater to the max in the middle of summer during a heat wave,” he said, relating what was later told to him by his son. “After they arrived at Ely, my son was brutally beaten and had his fingers deliberately broken. We reached out to the prisons immediately and couldn’t get any answers. His visitations were canceled so we could not lay eyes on him. ” 

Along with the lawsuit over Walker’s death, Return Strong and families are demanding an investigation into the officers involved with transit to Ely State Prison.

Hocking said that in “in multiple use of force complaints that we’ve received” the same corrections officers keep reappearing. 

The group, she said, received 354 letters from inmates that had complaints of correctional abuse, retaliation and assault from January 2023 through March of this year. Complaints named 56 corrections officers and medical staff.

For several years, she added, the group has heard rumblings about officers who oversee the transit abusing inmates during transportation. 

When asked how NDOC examines use of force complaints, Vance said cases are referred to the Inspector General’s office and it determines if there is a need for an investigation. 

“The IG’s Office will determine findings and may recommend disciplinary action,” Vance said. “The IG’s Office may refer the incident to an outside agency for criminal charges.”

The investigation, including reports, documents, results or interviewers conducted, are confidential and can’t be shared “without authorization by the Inspector General, Director or appropriate legal authority,” Vance added. 

Return Strong has recently worked with state lawmakers to bring reforms to the prison system, including setting up an independent ombudsman’s office.

NDOC Director James Dzurenda told lawmakers at an interim legislative committee meeting in February that the office is in the process of finding an independent vendor to oversee the office.

While Hocking said she had hoped the ombudsman’s office would be able to eventually look into issues of abuse, the work wouldn’t happen immediately. 

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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