Judge awards $225K to ex-inmate in Ind. jail abuse case

Inmate filed an excessive force lawsuit after he was put into a chokehold and slammed to the ground by a jail officer in September 2012

By Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — A federal judge has awarded $225,000 in damages to a former Vigo County Jail inmate who filed an excessive force lawsuit after he was put into a chokehold and slammed to the ground by a jail officer in September 2012.

The result, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, is that the county must pay $75,000 in compensatory damages to Mitchell Barnes, while former jail officer Brian Dawson will be responsible for the $150,000 in punitive damages.

Senior Judge Larry J. McKinney awarded the judgment Tuesday in federal court. Barnes filed his claim against Dawson in 2013.

Barnes told the Tribune-Star on Thursday that he is pleased with the judgment, and he feels the $225,000 amount is fair.

His attorney, Michael Sutherlin, told the Tribune-Star that the judgment was awarded after McKinney heard testimony from Barnes and from another former VCJ inmate who won a judgment against Dawson. The court also heard testimony from former jail officer Kim Hawkins, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Greg Ewing alleging that Hawkins was wrongfully terminated for complaining about prisoner abuse in the jail.

Vigo County Attorney Michael Wright was contacted Thursday afternoon by the Tribune-Star, seeking comment on the $225,000 judgment.

Wright said that he was not familiar with the federal case filed by Barnes and had no comment on it.

Dawson was also contacted by the Tribune-Star. Dawson said he was not aware of the recent court action, but he did recall being served with court papers while he was employed at the jail, where he no longer works.

In the complaint that Barnes filed with the federal court, he stated that the incident occurred while he was incarcerated in B block in the Vigo County Jail. Barnes said that he has severe asthma and must receive breathing treatments twice daily. Barnes stated that when he asked jail officer Dawson to allow him to take his second breathing treatment of the day, Dawson denied the request three times. When Barnes asked to speak to another officer in charge, he said, Dawson escorted him to another part of the jail, then became aggressive with Barnes and put him in a chokehold and slammed Barnes to the ground.

Barnes stated in his court filing that he felt that he might die while he was in the chokehold, and he felt that he was drowning. After the incident, Barnes said, he was handcuffed and placed in the drunk tank for several hours. Barnes said he was accused of assaulting Dawson, but was not formally charged.

Hawkins testified that he was employed at the jail at the time of the incident. He stated that he reviewed the Barnes incident on videotape and reported the incident to the jail commander and the sheriff. Hawkins said his concerns were ignored by jail officials.

Hawkins and Sutherlin appeared together at a press conference in July to announce that a federal lawsuit had been filed against Ewing and other jail officers, as well as Vigo County, alleging a pattern of abusive practices and cover-ups, including violence against inmates at the jail.

Sutherlin also represented Michael James, another former VCJ inmate, who was awarded damages in federal court after he said he was slammed to the jail floor by officer Dawson and suffered a concussion and seizure in 2012. 

Barnes told the Tribune-Star on Thursday that he has witnessed violence by jail staff against other inmates in the jail.

”When the incident first happened, I tried while I was in jail to have civil and criminal charges filed against the man. No one would listen,” said Barnes, who had been arrested on a theft charge in 2012. He was sentenced to prison in 2013 as part of a plea agreement.

Barnes said that after he was placed into the Department of Correction, he talked to someone at the Putnamville Correctional Facility who suggested that he file a federal lawsuit for excessive force.

”I felt like the county was dismissing it, and Dawson was not taking it serious,” Barnes said Thursday afternoon. He explained that he filed his suit against Dawson because it was Dawson who used excessive force. Barnes said he did not name Vigo County officials in the lawsuit, but attorney Sutherlin told him that the county would be included because Dawson was acting under color of law in his official capacity as a jail officer.

Barnes said that he continues to require treatment for his asthma. He said he also feels that violence against inmates continues to be a problem at the jail.

”Not only is the violence a problem, just the general lack of concern for the inmates,” Barnes said.

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