Isaac Welch believed he was going to die in his cell the night of a fire two years ago at a Lincoln prison, his attorney said in a lawsuit filed in Lancaster County District Court alleging the prison failed to protect him.
On April 7, 2017, Welch, a 47-year-old Omaha man serving a two-year sentence for possessing methamphetamine, was on the phone with his mother at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center on West Van Dorn Street when the disturbance broke out.
In the suit filed Friday, Lincoln attorney Joy Shiffermiller gave her client's account of what started that night at about 7:20, after a corrections officer had words with a few inmates, then entered a control booth and began to laugh and point at them.
Back on the unit 10 minutes later, the same officer got into a shouting match with an inmate and was grabbed and assaulted by a small group of inmates, the attorney said.
Shiffermiller said two officers who came to help were assaulted, too, before they got into the control booth, leaving behind a can of pepper spray.
Over the PA, she said, prison employees told inmates to lock down, and most did. But a small group refused. Shiffermiller said, and from the control booth, officers antagonized them by flipping them off.
She said inmates tried to break the control booth window with the legs of a table and lit fires, spreading smoke through the unit as they burned coats, plastic mattresses, sheets, wooden doors and a library drop box.
Inmates banged on their cell doors, asking to be evacuated, but Welch, and others, were left locked in their cells where water from the sprinkler system reached ankle deep, Shiffermiller said.
She said Welch and his cellmate breathed through a dampened shirt and through the vented plumbing in the toilet area in an effort to avoid noxious fumes.
After 2½ hours, the emergency response team went cell-to-cell, making inmates lie on the floor in the water to be put in full restraints before taking them to a gym, where a corrections officer shot a round of pepper spray into the air, Shiffermiller said.
"Several men vomited and black soot-filled mucus covered the floor, which plaintiff and others were required to sit in for hours," she wrote.
Shiffermiller said Welch wasn't given fresh water to drink for hours and was sent back to the fire-damaged unit the next night. When he sought medical treatment, he was told the congestion in his lungs was caused by smoking, not the fire.
She said Welch sustained injuries to his lungs and eyes from the smoke and chemical noxious fumes.
"Plaintiff reasonably believed he was going to die in his cell the night of the fire and had severe emotional distress as a result of the situation to which he was exposed," Shiffermiller said.
In the lawsuit against the state of Nebraska, she alleges prison staff had failed to adequately protect inmates, call for the fire department and evacuate Welch from the area of the fires.
She said the state placed inmates at D&E despite it being at 296% of its design capacity and failed to use reasonable care in security and control of the inmates.
Welch finished his sentence in 2018.
The state hasn't yet filed an answer to the lawsuit.
In a news release after the incident, a prison spokesperson said 16 inmates were involved in the fire that damaged a unit that housed 39 inmates. The fire was under control by 9:15 p.m.
According to the Corrections Department, none of the three staff members suffered serious injuries.