Joseph Colon, the heroin dealer sentenced to 30 years in prison last year in the overdose death of Savannah DeAngelis, and four other former inmates filed a federal suit against the Flagler County Sheriff’s jail last February, claiming that “bright lights in cells on 24 hours a day is a form of human torture causing us not to get our proper sleep.”
Federal District Judge Brian Davis on March 10 dismissed the complaint–not on its merits, but because “the Flagler County Jail is not a
legal entity amenable to suit,” so Colon and the four inmates failed to “state a claim upon which relief may be granted against it.”
“All inmates are provided with sleep masks when they are issued their facility items at intake. I incorporated this policy in 2020,” Chief Daniel Engert, who has been running the jail since January 2020, said. The jail is also considering other alternatives to alleviate the lighting’s effects on inmates.
All the inmates have since been transferred to state prisons. The transfers were unrelated to their suit, filed after they went to prison but referring to the time when they were at the jail, waiting for their cases to wend their way through court. They were in the jail at various points between Nov., 6, 2017 and Jan. 18, 2021, with Colon serving the longest stretch there as he awaited the disposition of his case.
Colon claimed that as a result of prolonged exposure to bright lights he “still suffers from sleep deprivation, his vision has worsened, and he was diagnosed with PTSD,” according to the judge’s order. But Colon didn’t know what amount of dollars he would seek from the Sheriff’s Office, saying he was still waiting for a diagnosis of his eye condition. He claimed in his suit that he had filed a grievance but that an officer ripped it up “saying grievances don’t make it past my desk,” according to Colon. He was specifically referring to his time at the jail starting in 2017 and said the issue remained unchanged until he was transferred to state prison in January 2021.
“I want to make sure these damages are not allowed to happen to another human being because of lack of humanity. There’s no amount of money that can repair my eyes at this point,” he wrote in his petition. (Deangelis’s family may find the words jarring, given Colon’s lack of any such concerns in the time that preceded Savannah’s death: he was aware she had been struggling with addiction and had been at a treatment center, and had taken advantage of a brief window of opportunity to sell her the fentanyl-laced heroin that almost immediately led to her overdose.)
Colon states that jail staff “tried to hand out sleeping masks out two years after my incarceration in an effort to remedy the situation in fear of a potential lawsuit.” He does not explain whether the masks remedied the situation.
Engert confirmed that lights do stay on at the jail. “It is largely due to the physical plant of the facility and the type of supervision that we are staffed for,” he said in an email. “If the lights are dimmed as they were installed, the cells are not visible for the deputies to be able to effectively supervise the inmates remotely and on video in order to confirm that they are safe, not in medical distress and/or attempting suicide, etc. In addition to implementing the sleep mask distribution however, we are also exploring alternative lighting solutions that could provide better options for both visibility for the deputies and softness for the inmates to promote effective sleep.”
Prisoners’ lawsuits or petitions are not uncommon, whether in state or federal courts, require no lawyer nor much legal research, and are filed through standard forms that require short narratives and boxes to be checked out.
But there have been few in Flagler. In 2017 a federal judge dismissed a suit by Steve Boursiquot, who’d been jailed on an aggravated battery charge. Boursiquot claimed his First Amendment rights were violated because the jail wouldn’t serve him halal food or provide him with an imam, among other issues, and asked for $13 million. But after his release from jail he’d not kept a current address on file with the clerk’s office, and Boursiquot never followed up on the complaint, resulting in its dismissal. Boursiquot was jailed again in 2018 and sentenced to 13 months in state prison, which he served. He has not been at the jail since.
This January, Michael Almond Jr. filed a petition claiming his right to confer with counsel and his right to attend religious services were infringed. Almond was required to file an amended complaint, failed to comply with several steps, and the case was dismissed. In April Almond tried again, but on Thursday (May 6) Judge Marcia Morales Howard denied the claim for a new complaint.
Other parties to the Colon lawsuit were Jimmie Lee Belle, III, serving three years for grand theft and fleeing cops, among other charges; Nathaniel Shimmel, sentenced in December to 50 years in prison for the murder of his mother; Alfred L. Shavers, serving 18 months on drug charges; and Christopher Shane Brock, who is serving three years on drug charges. Brock was at the center of a separate complaint against a deputy alleging earlier this year that the deputy had referred to him by the N-word. The complaint was not sustained by an internal investigation, which found that the deputy only addressed the inmate in ways other than by his name, which is also violation of policy.