A 22-year-old inmate died in a Florida federal prison last year after being pepper-sprayed and restrained for nearly two days, according to a lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of his father.
Davon Gillians’ May 19 death was ruled a homicide in August by the Sumter County Medical Examiner’s office, which noted that pepper spray use and “prolonged restraint following altercation” were contributing factors in his death.
Gillians’ father, Robert Conyers, is suing officials at the Coleman federal corrections complex for wrongful death and for violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the Middle District of Florida, claims prison staff denied Gillians food, water and medical attention while he was bound in a restraint chair in solitary confinement for days, despite knowing that Gillians had sickle cell disease that requires daily medication. After Gillians “suffered a further decline in medical status” while restrained, he was rushed to a hospital, where he died, according to the complaint.
The medical examiner ruled the cause of death as a vaso-occlusive crisis, which is what happens when blood flow is blocked by stuck sickle-shaped blood cells.
Conyers’ lawyer, Michael Levine, said his client has been unable to get the full details of the autopsy or other details beyond the death certificate.
Levine said prison and FBI officials have both told him the FBI is conducting a criminal investigation into Gillians’ death. The FBI did not reply to an email Tuesday for comment.
Gillians was incarcerated on a 46-month sentence at Federal Correctional Complex Coleman, located in Sumter County, and was set to be released in 2022 after serving time for a firearms charge.
Randilee Giamusso, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation and does not confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigations.
“The BOP is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all inmates in our population, our staff, and the public,” Giamusso said in a statement. “Humane treatment of the men and women in our custody is a top priority. Allegations of misconduct are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken if such allegations are proven true, including the possibility of referral for criminal prosecution when appropriate.”
It is unclear whether any staff have been disciplined to date over the incident.
According to the lawsuit, Gillians was restrained in a chair from May 16 to May 18, when prison officers removed him and took him to a cell with an inmate who had known mental issues and a propensity for violence.
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The two fought, and officers ended up breaking up the fight using pepper spray after “several minutes of fighting,” the lawsuit said.
“On information and belief, it was custom and/or practice at Coleman for officers to place inmates in particular cells for the purpose of inciting violence as a form of punishment,” the lawsuit said.
Gillians couldn’t stand up and leave the cell on his own, according to the suit. Officers lifted him by his arms and legs out of the cell and back into the restraint chair. In the late hours of May 18 or early May 19, Gillians was rushed to UF Health Leesburg Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Levine said that after Gillians’ death, inmates began reaching out to his family to let them know what happened. The lawsuit does not name those inmates, citing safety concerns.
The lawsuit says inmates in the facility could hear Gillians begging for food, saying he couldn’t feel his legs, that he had urinated and that he was scared he was going to die.
“My son made a mistake and was serving his time just like our justice system requires, but that doesn’t mean they get to punish him beyond what the law allows,” Conyers, who lives in South Carolina, said in a statement. “My son was killed and we must hold those responsible accountable.”
Lawsuits represent only one side of a story.
Joe Rojas, the southeast regional vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, which represents prison officers, said restraint chairs are used rarely, and their use must receive approval from officials at the regional level. He said the lawsuit was an “embellishment.”
The lawsuit lists the last names of six officers as defendants, as well as Kathy Lane, a former Coleman warden.
Lane, who is now retired, said she was the warden of a different facility within the Coleman complex and was not involved at the facility where Gillians was housed.
Levine said he was working off the knowledge he had, as the Bureau of Prisons refused to work with him and his client. He said he may amend the lawsuit, including changing named defendants.
The use of a restraint chair has been linked to 20 deaths in county jails since 2014, according to the Marshall Project. There is no centralized database to find out how many deaths are associated with restraint chairs.
Federal Correctional Complex Coleman is one of the nation’s largest federal prisons and has a campus with four facilities and a satellite women’s camp.
The women’s camp was the subject of an earlier lawsuit that was settled by the United States government, where a group of 15 female inmates said that officers had persistently sexually abused them.
In a government response, six accused officers admitted to having sexual contact with the female inmates but were not prosecuted. They were allowed to resign or retire, some with their benefits.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated following a response from Kathy Lane.