Carbon monoxide gas leaked into a West Virginia prison for days in August 2021, triggering alarms and, according to a federal lawsuit filed this month, poisoning people incarcerated in the facility.
Prison staff briefly released incarcerated individuals to the facility’s yard, but then brought them back to their respective cells, where they were exposed to high carbon monoxide levels for several days, said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland by two legal firms, including Baltimore-based Murphy, Falcon & Murphy.
The suit’s plaintiffs — 86 federal prisoners incarcerated at FCI McDowell in Welch, West Virginia — began showing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning and made reports to prison guards about medical conditions ranging from headaches to vomiting to loss of consciousness.
They received a “cursory” medical evaluation, the suit said, and have received “minimal” treatment in the year and a half since.
The lawsuit is asking a federal judge to order that the plaintiffs receive medical treatment, to order the federal prison system to produce audio and video recordings and to allow attorneys to meet with clients in-person.
A spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the lawsuit and the carbon monoxide leak in an emailed statement.
“For privacy, safety, and security reasons, the Bureau of Prisons does not discuss conditions of confinement for any individual inmate or groups of inmates, nor do we comment on pending litigation, matters subject to legal proceedings, or investigations,” said BOP spokesman Donald Murphy.
The suit names the BOP director, along with six regional directors. It includes Chris Gomez, Mid-Atlantic regional director for the prison system, who is based in Annapolis Junction, Maryland.
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In a news release, attorneys from the Baltimore firm and the Segal Law Firm from Charleston, West Virginia, argue the “epic” carbon monoxide release was caused by the malfunction of a boiler that heated water.
It goes on to allege that audio and light alarms went off in response to the gas leak, but were ignored for “almost three days.”
It was only after prisoners and employees began to vomit, pass out and defecate on themselves that they were taken outside, the release said.
“What happened here is worse than we’ve ever seen and we handle carbon monoxide cases across the country,” attorneys William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. and Andrew O’Connell, both from the Baltimore firm, said in the release.
Local news accounts of the carbon monoxide leak at the time said 26 inmates and five staff had received medical treatment.
Carbon monoxide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an odorless and colorless gas that can build up indoors and lead to poisoning. Symptoms are “flu-like,” the CDC says, and can cause people to pass out or die.
FCI McDowell houses about 1,422 incarcerated people. It is a medium-security prison.