Family of inmate who died after being pepper sprayed in Brooklyn federal prison sues

The mother of a 35-year-old Black man who died last year after being pepper sprayed in a federal prison in Brooklyn is suing the government and unnamed correctional officers for wrongful death, according to court documents.

The suit was filed Wednesday morning by Jamel Floyd’s mother, Donna Mays, who is the administrator of his estate, at federal court in the Eastern District of New York, and names the US and 30 unnamed correctional officers and staff for the federal Bureau of Prisons as defendants. CNN has reached out to the Bureau of Prisons for comment on the suit.

Floyd had been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center since October 2019, according to the suit. He was placed in solitary confinement on May 30, 2020, after receiving medical treatment following a physical altercation with officers and on June 3 he began having a “severe mental health or medical crisis,” and began yelling out for help “for hours,” the suit said, repeatedly saying his chest was hurting and that he couldn’t breathe.

Floyd, a Long Island native, had been treated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the suit said. At one point that morning, the suit said, Floyd broke a piece off his sink and used it to break his window, prompting correctional officers to come to his cell, some carrying riot shields.

“Instead of assisting Mr. Floyd, dozens of correctional officers flooded the unit where Mr. Floyd was confined. Officers sprayed several canisters of pepper spray directly into his locked cell,” the suit said. “This grossly excessive use of force caused Mr. Floyd to collapse and experience a life-threatening heart condition.”

The suit claims officers failed to call for or give medical assistance and instead pinned Floyd down and eventually strapped his limp body to a restraint chair.

“By the time the officers and a medical staff member finally attempted to resuscitate Mr. Floyd, while he was still strapped to the restraint chair, it was too little too late,” the suit said.

Floyd never regained consciousness and died that morning, the suit said.

Mark Desire, a spokesman for the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, said Floyd’s autopsy report listed his manner of death as an “accident (substance abuse)” and that his cause of death was “cardiac arrythmia due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease in the setting of probable proarrhythmic gene mutation” — or irregular heartbeat due to high blood pressure. The office also said a contributing factor of his death was “recent synthetic cannabinoid use.”

CNN requested a copy of the autopsy report from the New York City medical examiner’s office which said it would only release copies to families or their authorized representatives. Mays’ attorney Katherine Rosenfeld declined to provide a copy to CNN.

Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, a board certified forensic pathologist, said she believes the medical examiner’s assessment of Floyd’s cause of death was that he had an “abnormal heart rhythm due to an enlarged heart caused by longstanding high blood pressure, which could have been related to a gene mutation.”

“Based on the wording of the cause and manner of death statements, pepper spray was not a contributory factor in his death,” Grossberg told CNN. “It appears that the reason the manner was certified as ‘accident’ was because the drugs in his system may have contributed in some way to his death.”

The day after Floyd died, the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General said it would investigate the circumstances surrounding his death. Stephanie Logan, a spokeswoman for the office, said the investigation is ongoing and would not comment further.

The complaint contradicts what a Justice Department statement said at the time of his death. According to the statement, Floyd was barricaded inside his cell and “breaking the cell door window with a metal object,” the department said in a press release.

“He became increasingly disruptive and potentially harmful to himself and others,” the release said. “Pepper spray was deployed, and staff removed him from his cell.”

Medical staff determined that Floyd was unresponsive and “instantly initiated life-saving measures,” the department said.

The lawsuit alleges correctional officers used excessive force, were deliberately indifferent to Floyd’s serious medical needs, battery, wrongful death and negligence by failing to provide adequate medical care. The suit asks for compensatory and punitive damages.

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