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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Vets Clinic Petitions Court for Emergency Release of Disabled Veteran with PTSD

Marcus Hurdle, a 51-year-old disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who is currently incarcerated at Cheshire Correctional Institution, filed a petition this past weekend for a writ of habeas corpus and emergency relief in U.S. District Court. Hurdle is being represented by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.

As a sixth individual in a Connecticut state prison died this week due to COVID-19, the lawsuit alleges that the state violated Hurdle’s Eighth Amendment rights and failed to make reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect his life and health.

“Every day, I hear about more and more individuals being transferred out of Cheshire because of COVID-19,” said Lynette Hurdle-Bryant, Hurdle’s sister, who lives in Macon, Georgia. “Marcus is a sitting duck. We are terrified that he will get infected with COVID-19 and die in prison before he has a chance to see his children again.”

Hurdle, who was born in New London, CT, served honorably in the Navy as an Engineman from July 1990 to July 1991. While on leave to attend his grandfather’s funeral, he was shot four times in full dress uniform at a Georgia train station. The shots severed his femoral artery, and left him with debilitating PTSD and permanent physical disabilities, including loss of the use of his left foot. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has rated Hurdle 100 percent disabled as result of his PTSD, and rated him 60 percent disabled due to his physical injuries. As a result of his PTSD, Hurdle began self-medicating with drugs, eventually resulting in his incarceration on several occasions for robbery and violating a protective order. Hurdle is currently serving a 3 ½  year sentence for violating probation by possessing a firearm and failing to go to a court-ordered counselling group, and is scheduled to be released in June 2022.

“Mr. Hurdle served his country honorably, and sacrificed his mental and physical health in the process,” said Cara Newlon ’21, a second-year law student working on Hurdle’s case. “Now, Connecticut is forcing Mr. Hurdle to endure an additional trauma by exposing him to COVID-19 and confining him in his cell for 22 hours a day without mental health care services or social support. The state has a constitutional and moral obligation to release him to his home in West Haven.”

The petition alleges that Connecticut has violated both the ADA and Eighth Amendment by denying Hurdle the essential mental health medical care he needs and greatly exacerbating his mental and physical disabilities by exposing him to a life-threatening virus. Hurdle’s PTSD and impaired mobility — as well as his age — place him at an increased risk of being infected with COVID-19 and experiencing severe symptoms or death. As part of the COVID-19 restrictions at Cheshire CI, prisoners like Hurdle are forced to remain in their cells — with a cellmate — for 22 hours a day. They are released only once a day at the same time as 40 other inmates incarcerated on their cell block. While Hurdle experiences hypervigilance, paranoia, difficulty sleeping, and increased anxiety as a result of the outbreak, he cannot seek psychiatric or mental health care.

The petition asks that Connecticut release Hurdle to the West Haven home of his long-term partner, Lori Esposito, with whom he lived prior to his incarceration, or in the alternative to his sister, Lynette, who lives in Macon, Georgia. He could seek medical care through the VA in either Georgia or Connecticut.

“I’ve never seen Marcus experience such severe PTSD symptoms,” said Esposito. “He has a complicated past, but he doesn’t deserve to die alone in prison because he had a drug problem. I love him so much, and would give anything for a chance to keep him safe and help him live a better life.”

In general, the Connecticut prison system has been criticized for failing to lock down movement within the facility quickly enough, leading to the exponential spread of the virus. As of May 5, 2020, 356 DOC staff members and 471 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Prisons also face shortages of personal protective equipment: in Cheshire, incarcerated individuals only received masks around two weeks ago, according to the complaint. Prison health-care systems are not well-equipped to handle a flood of seriously ill patients, members of the clinic said. As a result, severely ill incarcerated individuals are transported to community hospitals, burdening Connecticut’s already overwhelmed hospital system.

Similar habeas petitions have been successful in releasing at-risk individuals incarcerated in Connecticut’s prisons: last Friday, Thaddaeus Lowery was transferred to a halfway house after a civil rights lawyer filed a habeas action on his behalf. David Terwilliger, an 80-year-old disabled incarcerated veteran, also secured his release to a halfway house after a habeas petition filed on his behalf by the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

“With hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases and a mounting death toll, Connecticut’s prison have proved that they cannot adequately respond to this unprecedented crisis,” said Garry Monk, Executive Director of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR). “No incarcerated person — particularly the veterans who sacrificed for their country — should face a death sentence because of the state’s botched response.”

Conley Monk, cofounder of NVCLR, added: “As a formerly incarcerated veteran who struggled with PTSD for decades, I understand very personally what Mr. Hurdle is going through. Managing PTSD is normally a daily struggle; in a crisis like COVID-19, it is unbearably painful. We urge the Governor and Department of Corrections to make veterans a priority for release.""

Interviews with Hurdle’s representatives are available upon request. Students in Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, representing Hurdle include Jade Ford ’20, Arjun Mody ’20, Kayla Morin ’20, Cara Newlon ’21, Molly Petchenik ’21, Leah Samuel ’22, Blake Shultz ’21, Casey Smith ’22, and Bardia Vaseghi ’22.