Dying prisoner files federal lawsuit seeking release

By Rhys Saunders | Oct 16, 2013

An Illinois prisoner suffering from terminal liver cancer has filed a federal lawsuit asking that Gov. Pat Quinn release him to his wife’s care in California.

William Stellwagen and his wife, Ava Diaz Stellwagen, filed the lawsuit Oct. 15 in Chicago’s federal court against the governor, Illinois Department of Corrections Director Salvador Godinez and Dixon Correctional Center Warden Nedra Chandler.

William Stellwagen, who suffers from liver cirrhosis caused by Hepatitis C, is serving a six-year prison sentence for home invasion.

The Stellwagens are represented by Harold Hirshman and Camille Bennett of  Dentons US LLP in Chicago.

Ava Stellwagen asserts in the suit that the prison and its staff have violated her husband’s Eighth Amendment rights by refusing to provide him the proper medical treatment.

The suit also claims that the prison review board has stalled in making a decision about William Stellwagen’s request for medical clemency.

“Pretending to offer compassionate parole and then creating a process where freedom from prison is illusory while physical pain continues and death looms is a Kafkaesque torture machine which cannot comport with the norms of a civilized society,” the suit asserts.

William Stellwagen and prison officials learned in late January or early February that he had suspicious growths in his liver, according to the suit.

Had they been treated at that time, the suit contends his cancer likely would not be fatal.

However, he did not begin treatment at UIC Medical Center until Oct. 15, the date his wife filed suit. She asserts that she repeatedly told prison officials about her husband’s medical condition, but they ignored her.

Prison staff on Oct. 10 denied William Stellwagen housing on a third-floor medical administrative unit in Dixon, which, according to the suit, does not have bunk beds and additional toilets for the elderly and infirmed.

Chandler, the warden, allegedly told William Stellwagen that he would instead be assigned to an upper bunk in “housing unit 26” because the medical administrative unit was full.

Because of his medical condition, William Stellwagen has to climb down from the top bunk several times every night to urinate, his wife claims in the suit.

Ava Stellwagen contends that her husband’s lack of medical care at the prison is part of a larger problem with the Dixon prison.

“Warden Chandler is aware from her years as warden at Dixon of its chronic failure to provide medical care,” the lawsuit states. “This general failure to provide care is known to the public as well.”

She cites a 2013 report by the John Howard Association that found many shortcomings with the prison.

Ava Stellwagen has requested that her husband be pardoned, paroled or placed on house arrest at her California home.

William Stellwagen says he’s suffered from lifelong problems with drugs, which led to 11 criminal convictions between 1984 and 2011, according to his request for clemency.

His most recent conviction was the result of a home invasion that took place in 2011.

He was released June 3, 2011, from Swedish Covenant Hospital, where he was being treated for complications caused by end stage liver cirrhosis.

William Stellwagen claims he was confused and disoriented because of elevated ammonia levels in his body.

“I have very little recollection of the crime I was convicted of, other than I thought I was at my brother’s house,” he states in the clemency request. “The next thing I remember, there was a man with a kitchen knife telling me to get on the floor. I ran away and he threw the knife at me, which I picked up, while continuing to run.”

He was arrested shortly afterward.




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