FJI, co-counseling with Florida Institutional Legal Services, sued the Florida Department of Corrections for the death of Rommell Johnson. Mr. Johnson was severely asthmatic and one day suffered an asthma attack that required a nebulizer treatment in his cell. Later that evening, he was sprayed with chemical agents (pepper spray) for allegedly making noise in his cell, and died of asphyxiation as a result. Claims were brought for negligence, deliberate indifference to serious medical need, and for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for failing to provide Mr. Johnson with an alternate use of a force as a reasonable accommodation. The case was settled for $175,000. Along the way, FJI and FILS received a favorable order confirming that the ADA prohibits a prison from intentionally using a method of discipline that, because of an inmate’s disability, subjects the inmate to a substantial risk of death that (1) is not faced by other inmates and (2) could be avoided by a reasonable accommodation. Hopefully, this case and the law it created will cause the FDOC to evaluate its use of force policies to exempt people with respiratory illnesses from the use of chemical agents.
4/15/15 Update: The Florida Department of Corrections has announced that it will change its rules to prohibit the use of chemical agents on people with respiratory illness. This is a significant victory for the incarcerated people and their families who expect reasonably safe conditions in prison.