Prison officers blocked medical help for inmate, Iko kin allege

Correctional officers at a Western Maryland prison kept medical personnel from attending to inmate Ifeanyi A. Iko as he lay motionless and apparently unconscious after a violent encounter with prison staff last year, according to legal papers filed in federal court by a lawyer for his family.

"Indeed, it was stated that as long as [Iko] was breathing, no one was going into the cell," attorney Gary C. Adler wrote in an amended complaint that was filed this week.

The complaint, filed as part of a civil suit seeking $28 million in damages, presents several new allegations regarding the events surrounding Iko's asphyxiation death at the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland on April 30.

The Iko family's lawyer obtained the new information through discovery. During discovery, each side of a legal dispute is entitled to see the other side's documents and to learn what all the witnesses have to say.

Among the new details in the filing is an account of Iko's treatment during the 90 minutes Iko spent in a cell in the isolated "special observation housing unit" at WCI.

Iko, 51, was taken to the unit for psychological evaluation after officers forcibly removed him from a cell in the prison's segregation section, where problem inmates are confined.

The Nigerian immigrant refused to leave the cell voluntarily, and officers used three cans of pepper spray in their attempts to subdue him and get him into restraints.

The lawsuit alleges that officers put a "hood-like mask" over Iko's head improperly after spraying him, "with the cloth part of the mask wrapped around [Iko's] mouth and nose, further restricting his ability to breathe."

According to the lawsuit, Iko was brought to the special housing unit in a wheelchair, restrained with handcuffs and leg irons, and with the mask over his face to prevent spitting.

Iko was placed on his stomach on the cell floor, and several officers kneeled on him to pin him down as an officer spent five minutes trying to find plastic "flex cuffs" to replace the metal handcuffs, the suit says.

"After the flex cuffs were put in place, [Iko] was left laying on the floor on his stomach, handcuffed behind the back and with the mask still around his face," the complaint states.

"He did not move from that position on the floor from the time he was placed in the special observation housing unit cell (approximately 3 p.m.) until his body was discovered cold and without a pulse by correctional officers at approximately 4:30 p.m."

The suit adds that officers "prevented medical personnel who wanted to check on [Iko] from attending to him" during this time.

Iko had a reputation at the prison as a strong and dangerous inmate, correctional sources have said.

The lawsuit also alleges that Iko was dead -- although handled as if he were alive -- when taken by ambulance from the prison. A few minutes after driving away from the prison, a paramedic reported that Iko showed signs of rigor mortis, and he received permission to cease lifesaving efforts.

If Iko had been declared dead inside the prison, WCI officials would have been required under correctional department rules to take special steps to secure the scene and preserve evidence.

The state medical examiner's office ruled Iko's death a homicide in May, but an internal investigation and later a two-day grand jury probe found no criminal conduct by prison staff.

The autopsy report said Iko's death was caused by "chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray," the placement of a mesh mask over Iko's face and the way he was restrained.

After Iko's death last year, state prison administrators adopted more restrictive rules on the use of pepper spray on prisoners.

They also held training sessions for correctional officers at WCI on the risks of "positional asphyxia" -- which can occur if an inmate is left lying on his stomach and handcuffed behind his back, making it difficult to breathe.

The lawsuit filed by the Iko family names Warden Jon P. Galley, Lt. James Shreve and 10 officers as defendants. It alleges violations of U.S. civil rights law and accuses the warden and correctional officers of trying to cover up the circumstances of Iko's death.

Iko originally was sent to prison to serve a three-year sentence for a drug charge but received an additional 20 years for assaulting a correctional officer in 1992 in an Eastern Shore prison.

The attorney general's office, which is representing the officers named in the suit, said that it does not comment on pending litigation.

Adler also declined comment.

Sun staff writer Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun