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$1.1 million settlement for prison stun gun death

by Laurence Hammack
The Roanoke Times

March 15, 2002

Connecticut has agreed to pay nearly $2 million to settle lawsuits involving the deaths of two inmates it sent to a controversial supermax prison in Wise County.

According to an attorney involved in the case, the Department of Correction will pay $1.1 million to the estate of Lawrence Frazier, who died after guards shocked him repeatedly with a stun gun at Wallens Ridge State Prison.

Another $750,000 will go to the estate of David Tracy, a mentally ill 20-year-old who had less than a year left to serve when he committed suicide at Wallens Ridge, a prison designed for hard-core inmates with little hope of release.

Antonio Ponvert, a Bridgeport, Conn., attorney who represented the inmates’ families, said prison officials never should have transferred 500 of the state’s inmates to Wallens Ridge in 1999, considering the prison’s reputation. Ponvert called Wallens Ridge “a place that is simply and utterly medieval,”

Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have complained about human rights abuses at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion State Prison, an identical supermax also located on a Wise County mountaintop.

Guards armed with stun guns and shotguns that fire rubber pellets often use excessive force, critics claim, and a Connecticut agency reported last year that minority inmates have been subjected to racial taunts from the predominantly white prison staff.

Ponvert said the settlement is subject to a Connecticut probate court’s final approval, which is expected to happen soon.

Officials with the Connecticut Department of Correction and the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment Thursday, saying the settlement has not been finalized.

So far, Virginia’s Department of Corrections has not been directly involved in the litigation. Ponvert said he decided to sue in Connecticut first because officials there were responsible for the transfers, which were intended to ease prison overcrowding but instead prompted widespread criticism.

Ponvert said the inmates’ families will likely file additional suits in Virginia.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, declined to comment Thursday.

In the past, Virginia prison officials have said they use no more force than necessary to deal with the type of inmates incarcerated at the state’s two supermaxes.

On April 5, 2000, Tracy hanged himself with a bed sheet in his cell at Wallens Ridge, authorities said at the time. A lawsuit filed last year stated that before his transfer to Virginia, Tracy attempted suicide five times and exhibited other signs of mental illness that should have indicated he was not suitable for supermax confinement.

At the time of his death, Tracy had just a few months left to serve on a 2 1/2 -year term for

a minor drug charge. Yet he wound up at a prison that was designed more to warehouse than rehabilitate.

“What are they going to be rehabilitated for? To die gracefully in prison?” Department of Corrections Director Ron Angelone said at the 1998 opening of Red Onion. “Let’s face it; they’re here to die in prison.”

On June 29, 2000, Frazier was shocked repeatedly with a stun gun during a struggle with guards in the Wallens Ridge infirmary, then tied down hand-and-foot to a bed. The convicted rapist lapsed into a coma and died five days later.

Although prison officials said at the time that Frazier became combative and had to be restrained, Ponvert said the diabetic inmate was actually going through insulin shock at the time.

Under those circumstances, Ponvert said, “You give him medical attention, you don’t stun him with a cattle prod.”

Use of the Ultron II stun gun, which is capable of delivering a 5O,OOO-volt burst of electricity, has been suspended in Virginia prisons since May, when an autopsy suggested that it played a role in Frazier’s death.

Connecticut inmates being held at Wallens Ridge were transferred to other Virginia prisons last year as the result of a lawsuit filed on their behalf in Connecticut by the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Later this month, three correctional officers will go on trial in Wise County Circuit Court in connection with the beating of an inmate who claims racial slurs were used during an incident at Wallens Ridge.