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News brief with Boulder Reporting Lab: Separate lawsuits reckon with mental illness, Marshall Fire

Ryan Partridge sits outside on a wooden bench between his mother, Shelley, and father, Richard, with green grass beneath them and the side of a beige house with a green-trimmed window behind them.
John Herrick
Boulder Reporting Lab
Ryan Partridge and his mother, Shelley, and father, Richard, live in the city’s Newlands neighborhood. Ryan said a recent settlement from a civil rights lawsuit against the county provides some financial security so he can afford to stay in Boulder.

We occasionally check in with our colleagues at the Boulder Reporting Lab. This week, KUNC’s Programming and Operations Manager Desmond O’Boyle spoke with Boulder Reporting Lab Senior Reporter John Herrick about a couple recent stories.

In one story, Herrick discussed a recent settlement between a Boulder family and Boulder County that shines a light on issues around jailing mentally ill people. The family of Ryan Partridge filed a lawsuit against employees at Boulder County Jail, alleging jail employees failed to provide adequate treatment for their son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2016.

Herrick first started reporting on this story two years ago. Partridge was originally incarcerated in 2016 at the Boulder County Jail, and it was abundantly clear he was suffering from mental illness. He repeatedly harmed himself, resulting in broken bones, and eventually permanent blindness. But the response from jail staff was lackluster. He was taken to a hospital in one case, then returned to the jail a day later.

“And when he was acting out, he sometimes was beaten when he hurt himself,” said Herrick. “Sometimes he was held in solitary confinement. Mental health experts and even the Boulder County sheriff, I think, would agree that jails have become these de facto warehouses for people with a mental illness. I think they would also agree that this is really not the place where they're going to get the care they need.”

Herrick has also reported on the Boulder County Jail having a difficult time implementing a new Colorado law limiting solitary confinement. The practice is often used for people experiencing mental health crises. While it can be useful to prevent people from hurting themselves or others, isolation generally makes symptoms of mental illness much worse. Colorado’s law limiting the practice took effect in July.

“I was speaking to the Boulder County sheriff about this earlier this year. And one of the key challenges they're facing in implementing it is letting people out of their cells, because there's so many people in the jail with the mental illness,” said Herrick. “Because there is sort of these policies in place to let people out one at a time, some people are only allowed out in the middle of the night. And that's not really a great time to call your family or go exercise or do other things you want to do while you're out of your cell.”

In another story, lawsuits continue to pile up against Xcel Energy following the report about what started the Marshall Fire in 2021. O'Boyle and Herrick briefly discussed the latest on a series of civil lawsuits filed againstXcel Energy over how the MarshallFire ignited. According to a Boulder County investigation, one of the sources of the Marshall Fire was likely sparks from a downed power line owned and operated by Xcel. Since that report, civil suits against the energy company continue to trickle in.

“My colleague Tim reported on each of those lawsuits against the company. And their main argument is that Xcel was negligent, that they should have anticipated the risk of high winds and the danger that that posed,” said Herrick. “They also argue that Xcel should be liable—held liable—for adverse condemnation. I think there's a lot of money on the line and we can expect a contentious and protracted legal battle.”

Even though the Boulder County report said there wasn’t enough evidence against the company to pursue criminal litigation, that didn’t exempt the power company from civil litigation.

Desmond O'Boyle
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