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San Luis Obispo County faces new civil rights federal lawsuit in death of inmate

Posted at 7:52 PM, Apr 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-18 02:23:23-04

A new civil rights federal lawsuit has been filed against the County of San Luis Obispo by the family of a Morro Bay man who died while in custody at the jail.

Russell Hammer, 62, died November 27, 2017, after complaining to jail staff of chest pain and shortness of breath.  According to the coroner’s report, Hammer died of an embolism due to deep vein thrombosis.

Hammer was booked into the jail on November 6, 2017, accused of stabbing his wife in a Morro Bay RV Park. According to court documents, Hammer had no prior criminal record prior to his arrest.

‘Practice of neglecting mentally ill inmates is decades long’

Paula Canny and her San Francisco law firm represent Hammer’s widow and several other family members of inmates who died, including Andrew Holland.

The new Federal lawsuit, filed last week on April 11, states Hammer was suffering from delusions and “was placed in solitary confinement, neglected and left to eat his own feces.” The suit also states jail officials refused to give Hammer his prescribed medications.

The federal complaint alleges the San Luis Obispo County jail staff has a history of denying medical and mental health treatment to inmates and that Hammer’s civil rights were violated.  The complaint also alleges that his treatment was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Court documents, which only represent one side of the story, list several examples of the county allegedly failing to appropriately care for inmates suffering from mental illness. One example was Coral Martin, the other was Andrew Holland.

In March 2016, Coral Martin, of Los Osos, was in custody on misdemeanor charges. The lawsuit states she was denied medication, placed in an inappropriate housing unit, injured herself and isolated without proper treatment where her condition worsened. Canny filed a separate civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Martin last year.

Martin was released from jail and is currently undergoing mental health treatment, according to the lawsuit.

The well-documented case of Andrew Holland’s death in the county jail is also used as an example in the lawsuit of poor mental health treatment in the jail. Holland, 36, died in January 2017 when he died of a blood clot at the San Luis Obispo County Jail after spending 46 hours strapped into a restraint chair.

Holland’s family was paid a $5,000,000 settlement with San Luis Obispo County.

In addition to naming San Luis Obispo County in the federal lawsuit, it also names Sheriff Ian Parkinson, Undersheriff Tim Olivas, former public health official Jeff Hamm, and Dr. Maria Ilano as well as various unidentified people as defendants.

‘Hammer’s death came 3 months after jail reforms announced’

Paula Canny claims Hammer suffered abuse, neglect, and lack of treatment for his mental and physical health after the County announced changes in care for those inmates suffering from mental health issues.

The lawsuit states “San Luis Obispo County told the general public that the problems had been corrected when San Luis Obispo County knew they had not.”

Documents show Hammer did spend two days at the San Luis Obispo Public Health Facility Unit a few days after his arrest but was then returned to the county jail. Hammer was also taken to a local hospital the night of his arrest, prior to his transport to the jail.

Canny states in the filing, “The short two-day stay was not sufficient to stabilize or treat Russell Hammer in any meaningful way.”

Hammer was the 12th inmate who died at the jail while in custody since 2012.

2nd lawsuit filed in Hammer’s death

Last November, Canny also filed a lawsuit in state court alleging Hammer was suffering from a number of medical and mental issues including psychosis. That lawsuit alleged wrongful death, reckless conduct, and negligence.

Along with the new Federal lawsuit, Canny filed an amended complaint in state court. The amended complaint alleges wrongful death, medical malpractice and a violation of California’s civil code.

Court documents state Hammer developed mental and physical problems after contracting Parkinson’s Disease in 2012.

During the altercation with his wife in 2017 which led to his arrest, Hammer was in the midst of a psychotic episode, according to court documents. Canny says Hammer realized what he had done and called the police. He was arrested after police arrived on the scene.

Canny says Hammer’s wife, Margo, did not want Hammer arrested.  Court documents say she asked that he be placed on a mental health hold instead.

During his confinement at the jail, the lawsuit states “staff failed to provide him or refer him for any meaningful mental health treatment or physical health treatment, predictably leading to his deteriorated physical condition and deteriorated mental state and his eventual death.”

San Luis Obispo County counsel Rita Neal told KSBY News Wednesday evening her office has not yet received a copy of the filings. However, Neal says the county plans to vigorously defend itself in any litagtion in the Hammer death.

The suit seeks unspecified damages.

In 2017, the FBI opened an investigation into civil rights issues at the jail. There is no timeline on when that investigation will be complete.

The Department of Justice also announced in November of 2018 it had opened an investigation into the San Luis Obispo County Jail for its mental health and medical treatment of inmates.