Prisoner Prevails In Lawsuit Over Moldy Mattress

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Prison inmate Harold Bell spent seven months at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield using a mattress that he said was slashed down the middle and smelled like mold and mildew. As a result, he said, he had difficulty sleeping, joint pain and headaches.

The 38-year-old Bell was so upset he filed a federal lawsuit by himself — handwriting some of the documents — in which he alleged he was the victim of cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates seldom prevail in lawsuits over prison conditions, but on Jan. 31 a Superior Court jury agreed with Bell and awarded him $12,000.

"It is very rare for an inmate to win a case like this," said Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder attorney Antonio Ponvert III, who handled the case at trial, where Bell testified.

The inmate, who is serving a 12-year-sentence for felony assault with a firearm, was awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages for civil rights violations and $7,000 for punitive damages. To award punitive damages, Ponvert said, the jury had to find the state prison system had malicious intent to cause harm.

Ponvert joined the case last September after Bell had already successfully won two motions. The government had filed one motion to dismiss the case and another for summary judgment. "He's a very smart man," Ponvert said. "It was pretty remarkable. He did a lot of research in prison."

Ponvert said that the letter Bell wrote him from prison, asking him to take the case, was one of many he gets each week from prisoners. "This one struck me as different," Ponvert said. "The money was not important for him. The important thing is how he was treated."

Jaclyn Falkowski, communications director for Attorney General George Jepsen, whose office defends all lawsuits against state agencies, said the office respects the jury's decision. "While no firm decision has been made, we are unlikely to appeal," Falkowski said.

Bell first complained of the bad mattress in June 2008 and reportedly made nearly two dozen requests for a better one in the next few months.

It wasn't until January 2009 that he received a new mattress; a correctional guard seemingly took pity on Bell after seeing the problem during a prison lockdown and quietly had it replaced.

Still feeling ignored by prison officials, Bell brought the lawsuit in 2010, naming as defendants Warden Peter Murphy and others who worked at the facility. Ponvert said there are a number of reasons why inmates have trouble winning lawsuits. "There's not a lot of lawyers bringing these cases," Ponvert said. "Most [inmates] file themselves, and are at a disadvantage because they aren't experienced with filing a complaint."

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