The family of a Hempstead man who died last June after being pepper sprayed by about a dozen officers in his Brooklyn jail cell has filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit alleging his pleas for medical attention were ignored until it was too late.
According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of Jamel Floyd, corrections officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center only came to his aid on June 3, 2020, after he was strapped to a chair and had stopped breathing. Floyd, 35, was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, officials said at the time, adding that his death didn’t appear related to the coronavirus.
An FBI investigation found no criminality in the case, but a federal Bureau of Prisons internal investigation is ongoing. None of the officers have been identified. There was no video recording of the incident.
The suit, filed in U.S. Eastern District Court in Brooklyn against the U.S. government and the federal Bureau of Prisons, seeks unspecified damages.
A spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment Wednesday because "the matter is currently under investigation."
"As we have continued to investigate, it’s become more and more clear he should not have died the way he died," said Katie Rosenfeld, a Manhattan attorney representing Floyd's family. "He was subjected to completely unnecessary and excessive force and if this hadn’t happened, he might be home with his family in Hempstead today."
Detention Center staff said Floyd had barricaded himself in his cell and broke its door window with a metal object. Federal prison officials said Floyd became "increasingly disruptive and potentially harmful to himself and others, when he was pepper sprayed and removed."
The lawsuit alleges corrections officers had beaten Floyd three days earlier following an altercation with other inmates, and he was sent to solitary confinement after returning from the hospital.
On June 3, according to the suit, Floyd suffered a medical or mental episode in which he shouted, "I can’t breathe" and asked for help.
"For hours, he repeatedly pleaded for medical assistance. His calls for help fell on deaf ears," the lawsuit states. "Instead of assisting Mr. Floyd, dozens of correctional officers flooded the unit where Mr. Floyd was confined. Officers sprayed several canisters of pepper spray directly into his locked cell. This grossly excessive use of force caused Mr. Floyd to collapse and experience a life-threatening heart condition."
The cause of death was ruled to be "cardiac arrhythmia due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease," with recent synthetic cannabinoid use as a contributing factor, a spokesman for the Chief Medical Examiner's office said.
The manner of death was determined to be an accident with substance abuse as a contributing factor, according to the medical examiner.
The medical examiner’s report did not address the effect of pepper spray, Rosenfeld said.
Floyd was serving a 15-year prison sentence for a 2007 home invasion robbery in Hempstead in which he and two accomplices forced a family, including four adults and five children, into a room at gunpoint and he severely beat one of the adults, according to court records.
In October 2019, Floyd was transferred to Brooklyn from Sing Sing prison for a legal proceeding in his case. He was eligible for parole in October 2020.
He had 120 days left on his sentence and his family said he was looking to get his commercial driver’s license with his brother.
The lawsuit cites a former prison warden who described Brooklyn MDC as one of the most troubled facilities in the federal prison system.
"I think unfortunately there is a lot of violence in prisons and jails, unlike on the streets, we are unable to record it like what happened to George Floyd on smartphones," Rosenfeld said. "No one is standing around with a phone videotaping, so there’s a lot less accountability and the public is not there to get to the truth."
In state prison, Floyd was prescribed medication for schizophrenia, an antidepressant, asthma and high blood pressure medication. His medication stopped six months later while at Brooklyn MDC after physicians called his conditions "resolved," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit said that during his medical episode, officers filed rounds of pepper spray for about 10 seconds, filling the entire jail units and making other inmates and officers sick.
Officers said they could not find Floyd’s pulse, but the lawsuit alleges officers did not seek medical attention while his body was convulsing until he was fully restrained.
"As Mr. Floyd lay on the ground, soaked in pepper spray with his heart beginning to fail, correctional officers opened the cell door, tackled Mr. Floyd, and pinned him to the ground," the lawsuit states. "Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of the Defendant Correctional Officers just four months before his parole eligibility date was not only untimely, it was preventable."