Lawsuit alleges ‘cruel, unusual punishment’ in Charleston man’s death after Florida incarceration

Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 11:35 AM EST|Updated: Mar. 1, 2022 at 7:30 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The family of a 22-year-old Charleston man who died after being held at a Florida prison filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the warden and multiple corrections officers.

Davon Gillians, 22, who was due to be released from prison in 2022, died on May 19, 2021, at Leesburg Hospital in Florida, the suit states.

“My family needs and demands answers,” his father, Robert Conyers, said. “While we are encouraged that the FBI and DOJ are investigating, we refuse to sit back any longer while the prison leaders refuse to meet with us and the government refuses to provide us with any answers. 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. My son was killed and we must hold those responsible accountable.”

Davon Gillians, shown here in a 2018 photo, died on May 19, 2021, at Leesburg Hospital in...
Davon Gillians, shown here in a 2018 photo, died on May 19, 2021, at Leesburg Hospital in Florida, after being an inmate at Copeland Federal Correctional Institution, a federal lawsuit states.(Provided)

Federal lawsuit alleges Charleston County man faced ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

A news release states attorneys Michael Levine and Mark Peper filed the suit on behalf of Gillians’ estate and allege that on May 16, 2021, officers removed Gillians from his assigned cell, “punched and choked him to the point of unconsciousness, strapped him in a restraint chair, and placed him in solitary confinement.”

Gillians suffered from sickle cell disease that was controlled with medication, the suit states.

“He would remain in the restraint chair while being deprived of food, water, medication, and medical care for nearly two days. Unfortunately for Davon, the cruel and unusual punishment continued,” the release states.

Court documents state corrections officers were instructed not to place any inmates in a cell with a certain inmate because of his “mental health issues and propensity for violence,” but despite that directive, officers placed Gillians in that cell “as a punitive measure.”

The suit states “immediately thereafter,” the inmate began fighting with Gillians, and that “rather than intervene, [the officers] deliberately allowed the fight to persist for an extended period of time to ensure [Gillians] would be injured.”

After several minutes of fighting, the officers used “large amounts of pepper spray in an attempt to extract Gillians from the cell, but that he was unable to exit under his own will, court documents state.

The suit alleges that Gillians was “in clear medical distress” and “continued to ask for water, but this request was denied.” The officers took Gillians “back to solitary confinement and once again placed him in the restraint chair without food, water, or medical attention despite his deteriorating condition,” the lawsuit states.

On the night of May 18 or early-morning hours of May 19. while he was still strapped in the restraint chair, the suit alleges Gillian suffered “a further decline in medical status” and was ultimately rushed to the emergency room where he died.

The lawsuit states a Charleston County man, 22-year-old Davon Gillians, died after being in...
The lawsuit states a Charleston County man, 22-year-old Davon Gillians, died after being in custody at Federal Correctional Institution Coleman in Sumter County, Florida in May, 2021.(AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

Death ruled ‘homicide,’ lawsuit alleges ‘history and culture of widespread abuse’

The suit states the manner of Gillians’ death was determined to be homicide and the cause was determined to be a “vaso-occlusive crisis complicated by oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray) use and prolonged restraint following altercation.”

Two autopsies were performed but records from the first one are not being released to Gillians’ next of kin or his estate because of the “ongoing criminal investigation,” court documents state.

“A second, private autopsy performed on Davon Gillians revealed abrasions to his arm and chest, soft tissue hemorrhage in the chest and neck, bilateral scleral hemorrhages, contusions within the right side of the chest wall, hemorrhages extending into the bilateral sternocleidomastoid muscles,” the lawsuit states. “The autopsy also revealed hemorrhages in the chest, neck and eyes consistent with a restraint event as described in the death certificate.”

The suit alleges Gillians’ Eighth Amendment right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment” was violated because of the restraint for “a dangerous and prolonged period of time despite his medical condition and injuries,” the denial of adequate water, food, hygiene and medical attention, failure to intervene and “gross and flagrant” conduct “suggestive of a reckless disregard” for human life or safety, among other allegations.

The suit also alleges that the jail’s warden “was personally aware of a history and culture of widespread abuse and deliberate indifferent treatment by Coleman officers,” including the “custom and practice of punishing inmates by placing them with specific inmates for the sole purpose of inciting violence” and the “custom and practice utilized at Coleman of punishing inmates by placing them in the restraint chair for dangerously prolonged periods of time and withholding food, water, use of the bathroom, medication and medical treatment.”

“Until we started researching the custom and culture at this prison specifically where we realized that -- woah, woah, woah! -- this prison has had problems for years with regards to training, supervision, refusing medical care,” Peper said.

The attorneys for Gillians’ estate say both the FBI and the Department of Justice are investigating the case.

Neither agency has responded to a request for comment.

“If this is a problem in this prison, the largest prison in our country, I have no doubt in my mind. It’s a systemic problem around our country,” Peper said.

The suit seeks a jury trial and demands damages for members of his family to include mental pain and suffering, medical and funeral expenses, loss of prospective net accumulations of Gillians’ estate and punitive damages.

Levine and Peper released a joint statement on the suit:

This type of purposeful behavior cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. For these officers to assault Davon and deprive him of his medication, medical attention, food and water as a form of punishment is unconscionable and violates his clearly established constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Further, this tragedy does not occur but for the custom and culture created at FCI Coleman that allowed these repeated acts of violence by officers against inmates to go unchecked, and likely encouraged, for years. This lawsuit seeks to end this custom and practice once and for all, while providing justice for this family.

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