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Settlement would end sex offenders' lawsuit

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The CCUSO wing at the Cherokee MHI. File photo
IOWA CITY (AP) - The state of Iowa would pay $35,000 in attorney's fees and make some changes under a proposed settlement that would end a class-action lawsuit brought by dangerous sex offenders who claimed their living conditions in a state-run treatment program were too harsh.

A group of patients filed an amended complaint in federal court in 2007 in which they claimed the conditions at the Civil Commitment Unit for Sex Offenders (CCUSO) in Cherokee amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, violating their constitutional rights. They complained about overcrowding, long lines to use the bathroom, hot food that was served cold, and inadequate access to medical care and exercise.

U.S. District Judge Donald O'Brien certified the claims as a class-action lawsuit in 2009 over the objections of the state, which argued that the complaints were too broad and vague to qualify. Rather than go to trial as scheduled in August, state officials and an attorney for the sex offenders reached a proposed settlement that was distributed to parties last month and released to The Associated Press. O'Brien is scheduled to hold a hearing June 22 to determine whether to sign off on the plan.

Under the proposal, the state would replace a broken treadmill and ensure at least one piece of exercise equipment was always available, install a bathroom in a courtyard for the patients to use, and make more legal materials available to those who are representing themselves in court. A policy change would give patients greater ability to appeal disciplinary actions that reduce their progress on the five-step program.

State officials argue in the settlement that they have always maintained an adequate level of care for patients and have not violated their rights, but would agree to changes to avoid "protracted and adversarial litigation." The plaintiffs also admitted that some of their initial claims did not withstand legal scrutiny following further research.

Patients living in the unit have been declared too dangerous to be released into the public following the completion of their prison sentences for sex crimes. They could be released if they complete the rehabilitation program, but no one has successfully done so since the unit opened in 1999. More than a dozen have died or been released as a result of legal decisions, said Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs the center.

Munns said the changes would not make it easier to complete the program, which he called "a rigorous process designed to make sure that anybody who emerges from that unit is no longer a threat to society." He said the settlement was proposed because its cost would be less than that of taking the case to trial.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Patrick Ingram of Iowa City, would be paid $35,000 for his work on the case. He did not immediately return a voice message to the AP Tuesday.

The settlement says several steps have already been taken to address specific complaints by patients. They include installing "sound-reducing door sweeps" in rooms where patients make telephone calls to give them more privacy, and ending the use of a restraint device known as the "black box" during transportation that patients said hurt their hands and wrists.

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