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Prison Not Off Hook in Guard’s Suicide

SACRAMENTO (CN) - California's department of prisons violated the First Amendment rights of a prison guard who committed suicide, a federal judge ruled.

The late Scott Jones spoke as a private citizen when he brought up complaints about prisoner abuse and other misconduct to his supervisors at High Desert State Prison, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley ruled on March 27.

Nunley found that Jones' call to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation whistleblower hotline was protected by the First Amendment. He rejected defendants' claim that Jones' complaints were just part of his official duties as a correctional officer.

"It appears to the Court that communication with the CDCR whistleblower hotline is likely protected by the First Amendment," Nunley wrote. "The Court concluded that the foregoing reasons support that plaintiffs have adequately alleged that Jones engaged in speech activities involving matter of public concern, and that the question of whether all of Jones' speech activities were exclusively within the scope of his official duties is a factual question not susceptible to resolution on this motion."

Jones's widow sued the department of prisons in 2012, alleging wrongful death, supervisor liability, negligence, and labor code and civil rights violations. Also named as defendants CDCR Director Matthew Cates, High Desert State Prison Warden Mike McDonald and two lieutenants at the prison.

Nunley denied the defense's motion to dismiss Jones' protected speech claims, but granted three other motions, including state law claims for wrongful death by suicide.

Nunley dismissed Jones's allegation that her husband was acting "under and uncontrollable impulse when he committed suicide," and suggested that her husband had the opportunity to "appreciate the nature of his actions" when he sought treatment for his depression.

The Aug. 21, 2012 complaint details a pattern of retaliation and harassment by supervisors after Scott Jones said he witnessed acts of misconduct at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville.

Jones said he saw strip searches of inmates in the snow, provocation of inmate fighting and failure to allow inmates to shower. His reports were dismissed and his supervisors falsely accused him of misconduct and threatened to fire him, his widow said.

The abuse and retaliation forced him to seek medical care for depression and he eventually called the CDCR whistleblower hotline demanding protection from his supervisors, according to the complaint. Three days after he quit he was found dead in his truck with a note saying, "The job made me do it."

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