UTAH STATE PRISON — A family of an inmate who was killed at the Utah State Prison in March filed a federal lawsuit this week, while the family of another slain inmate is considering similar action.
The civil rights complaint, filed by the family of Jeffrey Vigil, alleges the prison was improperly staffed, that guards were improperly trained and that those guards failed to heed warnings from Vigil himself not to move him to an area of the prison that housed rival gang members.
Meanwhile, the family of James Corbett, who was found unresponsive and beaten in his cell on Aug. 10, maintains their loved one was set to be released on Sept. 9 and never should have been placed with his cellmate.
Court records show the cellmate, Timothy Maez — the man charged with brutally killing Corbett — had recent convictions for aggravated kidnapping, retaliation against a Utah Board of Pardons and Parole member and propelling a substance at a correctional officer.
“I don’t know how or why my younger brother was transferred into his cell with a person who had an extremely violent history,” said Brenda Johnson, Corbett’s sister. “I think that the prison failed. I think, I really honestly believe, that they weren’t paying attention.”
Vigil was found brutally beaten, choked and stabbed on March 14. Ramon Luis Rivera and Albert Collin Fernandez were subsequently charged with murder, among other counts, in connection with the death.
Charging documents noted that Vigil’s head had been stomped over 70 times after he had lost consciousness and that one of the attackers even had time to change and bleach some of his clothes after the attack.
The lawsuit alleges that a guard in the “bubble” was “inattentive” or “not properly monitoring the cameras” at the time of the attack and that the prison guards were “improperly trained on how to address medical situations, riots and assault control,” which ultimately resulted in a slower and improper response to Vigil.
“It was apparent from the 911 calls that there was no emergency plan in place about how to properly handle a medical situation or, if there was a plan in place, the officers were not properly trained to follow that plan,” the lawsuit states. “The officers were unsure of where exactly to direct the ambulance to best reach Jeffrey. This is evidenced by the officers needing to discuss amongst themselves where to send the ambulance when the dispatch asked where to go.”
Vigil, according to the lawsuit, had informed guards on three separate occasions that he would not be safe in the area of the prison where he was ultimately attacked. The lawsuit alleges the guards “deliberately ignored” each warning.
“These defendants foresaw, or reasonably should have foreseen, the possibility of inmates or detainees in custody who may suffer serious injuries or death as a result of fights instigated by rival gang members,” the complaint states. “However, these defendants failed to provide and/or follow adequate policies, procedures, or training to their employees or contractors to reasonably provide for the safety and health of inmates in connection with such risks. In this, these defendants were deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of Jeffrey, which deliberate indifference caused his death.”
Corbett’s family members said Tuesday they also plan to file a lawsuit and were retaining a Salt Lake City-based lawyer.
Johnson said Corbett was nonviolent and had nearly completed a 10-year prison term when he was killed.
Unified police said at the time Corbett had suffered trauma to his face and head and that a ballpoint pen was believed to have been used in the attack.
“I believe that they killed my little brother because he was a sex offender,” Johnson said. “He was a wonderful spirit who was poisoned, who was hurt as a child, and unfortunately it carried over and it landed him in prison.”
Johnson said the prison “should have known better” than to place her brother with Maez.
“This is their fault — they have to take the liability, they have to take the blame for this because he was in their protective custody,” the sister said. “I think it’s their responsibility to at least look into it, so this can stop happening.”
Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
In a statement, Gehrke said prison employees “strive diligently to provide safety to fellow staff, volunteers and each of the 6,300 prisoners” in custody.