McNeil Island officers sought bribes, lawsuit says

The guardians of a state prison inmate who suffered brain damage when he tried to hang himself claim in a lawsuit that at the time he was hurt, corrections officers were accepting bribes in return for granting special privileges. Access to cell phones and unauthorized conjugal visits could be bought, and money was extorted from prisoners who wouldn’t pay, the lawsuit says.

Tacoma attorneys Jack Connelly and Nathan Roberts, who represent Leon Toney and his guardians, told The News Tribune last week that they’re unsure how widespread the alleged corruption was at McNeil Island prison when their client attempted suicide in September 2008.

“That’s part of the point of the case: To get to the bottom of this and see how many people are involved,” Roberts said.

They also are seeking unspecified monetary damages for Toney, who remains in a semivegetative state.

Toney, then 31, tried to kill himself after Department of Corrections officers retaliated against him by putting him into solitary confinement when he refused to meet their bribery demands, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week.

They knew he might be a danger to himself because of previously diagnosed mental health issues, the suit contends.

“DOC staff knew or should have known that improperly locking him in solitary confinement would aggravate his serious depression and suicidal ideation,” the suit states.

Belinda Stewart, communications and outreach director for the Corrections Department, said Friday that the agency would not comment on the allegations raised in the lawsuit.

“We extend our sympathy and concerns to Mr. Toney and his family,” Stewart said in a statement. “We will vigorously defend our actions in this case and believe the evidence will show that Mr. Toney’s unfortunate injuries were the result of his own actions.”

That was the conclusion of an investigation of the matter conducted by Washington State Patrol detective Juli Gundermann, who investigated the case after Toney’s relatives raised the possibility he might have been the victim of foul play.

“Except for the initial allegation made by the Toney family, there is no evidence to implicate DOC personnel in the hanging, and all evidence points to an attempted suicide,” Gundermann wrote in a report submitted to her superiors May 28, 2009.

Connelly and Roberts said the results of Gundermann’s investigation – including statements from corrections personnel – form part of the basis for the lawsuit.

Gundermann uncovered allegations that at least three female corrections employees at McNeil Island either smuggled cell phones, tobacco, drugs and other contraband to prisoners, had sex with them or allowed inmates to have sex with women from outside the prison for a fee.

Prisoners were charged as much as $500 for a cell phone and $150 to have sex with visitors in an area that earned the nickname “the boom boom room,” according to the detective’s report. A former News Tribune reporter obtained the report through a public records request and shared it with the newspaper.

Natasha Davson, one of the corrections officers accused of smuggling in contraband and arranging for prisoners to have sex, was fired before her probationary period ended, corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said Friday.

Davson, 35, was arrested Oct. 31, 2008, and booked into the Pierce County Jail for investigation of third-degree introduction of contraband, a misdemeanor, according to jail records. She was not charged and probably will not be because the one-year statute of limitations for a misdemeanor has passed, deputy prosecutor Kevin Benton said Friday.

No other corrections officials were disciplined as a part of the case because there was “no supporting evidence,” Lewis said.

At least one of the female officers named in the report continues to work for the department.