Wyoming State Penitentiary

The Wyoming State Penitentiary shown in Rawlins. An inmate alleges he was forced to breathe pepper spray because of a non-functional ventilation system.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

A Wyoming State Penitentiary inmate is suing prison officials, saying they violated his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment by failing to maintain the facility.

Chester L. Bird, who has been serving a life sentence since 1994, filed federal suit against three prison officials last week. The suit alleges that Bird had to breathe pepper spray for hours at a time due to a non-functional ventilation system. However, it’s unclear if the lawsuit will proceed because Bird must first pay a $400 filing fee.

The suit names Robert Lampert, director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, Michael Pacheco, head warden, and Jeffrey Heier, the prison’s maintenance manager, as defendants.

A Monday afternoon phone call to a prison spokesman went unanswered.

The federal court filing system does not name an attorney for the three prison officials. They are typically represented by Justin Daraie of the attorney general’s office. Daraie could not be reached for comment by Tuesday afternoon.

In court filings, Bird alleges that airflow in his cell stopped Aug. 9. Three days later, he submitted a complaint form, which noted that twice that week pepper spray had been used on his unit. Pacheco allegedly replied that a new HVAC employee was “working to address the current air flow issues.”

In response to another complaint form submitted Aug. 20, a prison sergeant said Heier acknowledged “reduced air flow” but denied that the ventilation was non-functional, according to the filings. Pacheco gave a similar response on Aug. 31, according to Bird.

Bird claims that prison policy requires staff to turn on emergency exhaust fans when pepper spray is used. He states that the fans have not been used in the year he has spent in his current housing unit. He wrote that after prison officials broke up a fight using pepper spray on Sept. 8, a sergeant said the fans were broken.

Bird wrote in his filing that the prison is understaffed and overcrowded, exacerbating the airflow issue that forms the basis of his suit.

The state prison in Rawlins suffers from structural problems that create security risks, officials have said.

The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee voted in July to approve $7.5 million in repairs to the prison, rather than a proposed $80 million dollar fix that would be good for decades.

Bird is acting as his own lawyer in the suit. He also filed suit in May on his own behalf alleging that the same parties did not provide him proper medical care. Defense attorneys filed a motion last week to have the medical suit dismissed.

In addition to monetary damages, Bird is seeking a preliminary injunction that would prevent prison officials from using pepper spray in areas of the prison that do not have functional air exhaust systems.

Bird’s lawsuit will only be considered if he pays a $400 filing fee by Jan. 8. He had attempted to file the lawsuit in forma pauperis, which would have meant a waiver of the filing fee, but Judge Alan Johnson declined his request.

Because Bird has had three previous lawsuits dismissed that were frivolous, malicious or failed to state a claim upon which relief may have been granted, he no longer qualifies for in forma pauperis filings from prison.

Prisoners at the Wyoming State Penitentiary cannot receive incoming phone calls, so Bird was not contacted for comment in relation to this story.

Follow crime reporter Shane Sanderson on Twitter @shanersanderson

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Shane Sanderson is a Star-Tribune reporter who primarily covers criminal justice. Sanderson is a proud University of Missouri graduate. Lately, he’s been reading Cormac McCarthy and cooking Italian food. He writes about his own life in his free time.

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