Lawsuit: Jury finds Ore. CO put inmate in harm's way, awards $350K
In the lawsuit, the inmate alleged the CO compromised his safety by revealing to other prisoners that he was in protective custody after leaving a gang
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal jury awarded $350,000 in damages to an inmate who sued an Oregon prison guard, alleging she compromised his safety by revealing to other prisoners that he was in protective custody after leaving a gang.
The jury found corrections officer Amanda Litzsinger violated inmate Skyler James Floro’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from harm while in state custody and that he suffered an injury as a result.
The judgment granted 23-year-old Floro $200,000 in punitive damages and $150,000 in non-economic damages. Litzsinger remains an Oregon corrections officer. U.S. Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta formally approved the judgment last month.
Floro was slashed with a makeshift weapon that resembled a razor blade by another inmate and attacked multiple times after the corrections officer announced to other inmates that Floro was a “p.c. case,’’ short for protective custody, according to his lawyer, John Burgess.
“My hope is it sends a message that they need to make sure that people trying to leave gangs are protected,’’ Burgess said of the verdict.
Betty Bernt, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Corrections, said, “Although we disagree with the jury’s verdict against Litzsinger, we respect their decision. We are considering options for appeal and have no further comment at this time.’’
Floro, who is still serving a sentence for a second-degree robbery conviction from Washington County, watched the trial and testified via a video feed from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. His release date is in October 2021.
The case stemmed from when Floro was an inmate at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in early 2017.
That January, Floro sought protective custody by refusing to “cell-in,” or refusing to voluntarily enter his cell in general population housing after deciding to leave the “18th Street” multi-ethnic gang, according to his lawyer.
As a result, he was taken to the prison’s disciplinary segregation unit, which also apparently is used for inmates in protective custody.
As he was being escorted to his cell in that unit by Litzsinger, several inmates called out to ask Floro why he was going there.
According to Floro, Litzsinger yelled out to the inmates, “He’s here because he’s a P.C. case!”
As a result, Floro was subjected to constant harassment and threats from other inmates, according to his lawyer. On July 13, 2017, Floro was slashed in the right eyebrow with a weapon resembling a razor blade, his lawyer said.
Litzsinger testified that she didn’t recall escorting Floro to the segregation unit and wouldn’t use the phrase “PC case’’ or disclose that information to other inmates.
But three other inmates supported Floro’s testimony, telling jurors that Litzsinger had engaged in precisely the same conduct before, according to Burgess. These inmates also testified via a video feed from a prison.
Protective custody is intended to shield inmates from a prison’s general population. Informing an inmate that another offender is in protective custody would violate prison policy.
Some prisons, such as Eastern Oregon, are allowed to use disciplinary segregation for inmates seeking protective custody if no other “reasonable housing alternative’’ is available to place them apart from the general inmate population, according to Corrections Department policy.
But disciplinary segregation often houses a prison’s most violent and predatory inmates, including gang members, who suddenly became aware of Floro’s security concerns, his lawyer said. Floro would have preferred being moved to another prison, Burgess added.
Floro was in the segregation unit for less than two weeks and then placed in dormitory-type housing in a different part of Eastern Oregon’s general population. By then, word had spread that he’d been in protective custody and other inmates were calling him a “snitch,” his lawyer said.
Bernt, of the state corrections department, said she didn’t know if Litzsinger received any discipline or was investigated in this case. She’s been an Oregon corrections officer since July 2011.
©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)