Disabled inmate wins $500,000 jury award against SF after guard orders him to jump in cell

A federal court jury has awarded San Francisco $504,000 in damages in a lawsuit brought by a one-legged inmate who was taken out of his wheelchair by officers and ordered to jump in another cell, fell en route and was carried face down. to the cell.

Vincent Bell, who had previously had his leg surgically removed, was charged with participating in a murder in 2012 and has since been imprisoned awaiting trial. In January 2018, while being held in a solitary confinement cell at 425 7th St. Jail, a guard, Sgt. Yvette Williams, said Bell insulted her and was dangerous, and ordered her to be moved to a “security cell”, a small padded compound with no toilet.

Williams and other guards said Bell resisted and put pads on his cell door to block their entrance, but U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of Oakland said video showed him waiting quietly in his cell. wheelchair when officers arrived. They removed him from the wheelchair – Williams later said she feared he was hiding contraband in the chair – handcuffed his hands behind his back and told him to jump into the cell 64ft away of the.

When Bell fell, guards held him down and then carried him, his arms handcuffed behind him, to the security cell, where he was stripped of his clothes and held for 20 hours, said Illston in a ruling last November that declined to dismiss his lawsuit against Williams and the city.

On Wednesday, the jury found that Williams used excessive force and that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office violated Bell’s rights under federal disability laws by failing to properly train its staff. Jurors said the city should pay Bell $504,000 for the physical and mental damage he suffered during the cell transfer.

The verdict should send the city “a very clear message … that it must welcome people with disabilities and that deputies must not supersede their personal judgment for the judgment of health professionals in prison”, EmilyRose Johns, attorney for Bell , said Thursday.

She said attorneys will now offer additional evidence to Illston and ask the judge for an injunction ordering San Francisco to provide better training for prison guards.

Jen Kwart, spokeswoman for City Attorney David Chiu, said her office was disappointed with the verdict and was considering an appeal.

“We … remain adamant that Sheriff’s Deputies acted reasonably and appropriately in placing and transporting the Complainant to a secure cell,” Kwart said in a statement. She said Bell had “a history of concealing weapons in his wheelchair” and maintained that he had “barricaded himself in his cell and prepared for a fight” before officers arrived.

Bell, now 40, was one of six people charged with involvement in the murder of 26-year-old Stephen Reid, who was abducted from a home on San Bruno Avenue in December 2012, beaten, then transported in an SUV and shot dead. . Four of the six pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Bell’s attorney in the criminal case, Paul DeMeester, said Bell was accused of supplying the weapon used by the alleged killer, Montrail Brackens of Oakland, who also faces a murder charge.

The Bell prison case took an unusual turn in testimony from Kate Hellenga, who had been the prison’s staff psychologist in January 2018 and agreed with MPs at the time that the inmate should be moved to a security cell. But as Bell’s witness, she told the jury she was pressured to make that assessment.

“We were told, ‘Don’t bother the sheriffs, they’re controlling our access to our clients,'” Hellenga, now a private psychotherapist in San Francisco, said Tuesday. “We had to accept what they said or potentially our access was impaired.”

She said she also informed the board of supervisors of the prison’s practices.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @BobEgelko

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