A D.C. Superior Court jury ordered the District government to pay $1 million yesterday to a D.C. prisoner who was paralyzed after a stabbing assault at Lorton Reformatory, the second million-dollar award involving a District inmate in less than a month.
Last month, another Superior Court jury awarded $1,030,002 to the estate of a man who died in D.C. Jail while he was on the medical ward for mental observation.
In both cases, lawyers for the inmates argued that unsafe conditions at Lorton and the D.C. Jail led to the failure of the District government to provide adequate protection, supervision and medical treatment for the two men.
The two verdicts, coming so close together, are unusual. Lawsuits involving injuries to inmates are usually difficult to win before a jury as there usually is relatively little sympathy for prisoners.
Both D.C. Jail and Lorton are under court-ordered population ceilings and are the subject of longstanding lawsuits charging unsafe and overcrowded conditions. A federal study released this summer said that inmates are virtually running the dormitories at Lorton Reformatory's Central Facility and that many prisoners there live in constant fear of assault.
That study, by the National Institute of Corrections, was introduced as evidence in yesterday's assault case to buttress claims that the District was responsible for the injuries suffered by Daniel Bethel, an inmate at Lorton Central who was stabbed in the neck as he slept May 2, 1985.
Bethel apparently was stabbed by another inmate with whom he had argued at a Lorton bathhouse.
Samuel Shapiro and Irwin Meiselman, Bethel's lawyers, told the jury that Bethel had been asked by Lorton officials to help supervise the bathhouse at the time of the argument, a practice that the lawyers argued ran contrary to sound penal practices. The lawyers also pointed to the severe overcrowding at Lorton.
Bethel, who will not be eligible for parole until at least 1991 on his rape conviction, has no feeling on the left side of his body and no strength on his right side, according to his lawyers.
District government lawyers argued that Bethel was partly responsible for his own injuries because of his earlier argument with the stabbing suspect. No one has been charged in that assault.
The other case involved 44-year-old Harold Barman, a D.C. Jail inmate with a history of mental illness. Several witnesses testified during that trial that Barman, a PhD candidate, had knelt nude in front of his bunk for three hours before a guard discovered him dead.
Lawyer Brian Shaughnessy introduced evidence that at least one corrections official was aware that Barman had been sodomized and sprayed with glass polish on the day of his death.
Witnesses testified that after the two incidents, Barman was placed in his cell and later was observed kneeling nude for about three hours before another inmate suggested to a guard that Barman be checked. One guard testified that he thought Barman was praying.
Medical experts testified that Barman apparently died of an acute respiratory attack that could have been easily treated if discovered in time. Shaughnessy said evidence also was introduced that Barman's cell was streaked with bodily fluids and excrement, a sign that Barman had struggled for some time before dying.