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Florida Prisoner Dies in CCA Jail

On February 26, 2002, the family of a prisoner who died as a result of medical neglect at the privately-run Bay County jail in Florida filed formal notice that they intend to sue the jail, as well as the Bay Medical Center where the prisoner was treated, for failure to properly care for him when he became violently ill in a jail holding cell on Feb. 15, 2002.

The story began when Justin Sturgis, 21, was booked into the jail, which is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America of Nashville (CCA), and charged with driving under the influence. When Sturgis was pulled over he reportedly swallowed 10 hits of Ecstasy to avoid police finding the drug on him when he was arrested. Sturgis arrived at the jail and repeatedly told guards that he had swallowed the drugs and that he needed medical treatment.

However, according to former Bay County jail nurse Jerry Militich, the jail's medical staff was under constant pressure from jail custody staff to avoid sending sick prisoners to the hospital. This inhumane cost-cutting venture eventually led Militich to resign in protest over this practice. Sturgis was brought to see a jail nurse who did call a hospital, but was advised to monitor Sturgis for two hours instead of bringing him in for treatment.

Other prisoners said that Sturgis' condition quickly worsened, and began banging himself against a wall, kicking, and biting his lip. All the while the prisoners were yelling for the guards to get a doctor. However, according to reports, instead of getting a doctor, guards mocked and laughed at Sturgis for two hours before finally calling an ambulance. However, the ambulance was not even called until Sturgis went into cardiac arrest. Sturgis later died.

Militich quit a year before this incident because he feared that the pressure put on him not to do his job would eventually cause a prisoner to die. "And it happened," Militich said. "I knew it was going to happen, and I couldn't handle it. So I left. When I saw [it reported in] the paper, I had to call."

The specific pressure refers to the fact that CCA must pay to transport prisoners to and from the county hospital, and must also pay for their medications. Since CCA is a private, for-profit company, the incentive to save money is obvious.

"I was pressured not to send people to the hospital," Militich said. There is a lot of pressure because of a manpower shortage when you say, `I want this guy to go to the hospital,' and they have to pull one or two [guards] form somewhere else" to transport the prisoner to the hospital.

Militich said that sometimes prisoners would go days without receiving their proper medication. Or worse, they never got it. "They would put [prisoners] on something else other than the medication that they were prescribed because of the cost." The Sturgis family attorney, Wes Pittman, said he will file suit against CCA on behalf of the Sturgis family. He said that no final decision has been made on whether to include the hospital in the suit.

Dr. George Tracy of Bay Medical Center told a newspaper that had Sturgis been taken to an emergency room immediately, he probably would have survived the effects of ingesting the drugs. Pittman said that although CCA is a private company, and he does not envision suing Bay County itself, he decided to comply with statutes requiring a 180-day notice of intent to file suit as a precaution because government business is involved.

Pittman also indicated that he intends to expand the lawsuit to include other incidents of medical neglect at the jail. Many prisoners have complained to their attorneys and to local newspapers about the jail's substandard, and sometimes non-existent medical care. Those complaints included many incidents where guards mocked prisoners for their medical condition. On one such occasion a guard yelled loudly that a prisoner was faking a medical problem. However, after being taken to the hospital, doctors revealed that he had suffered a seizure.

Militich remembers becoming so frustrated with guards' interference at one point that he yelled out to them: "Well, hell, there's no reason for me to be down here. You are all apparently qualified to assess this person medically. Why do you need me?"

Before the notice of intent was filed, Bay County Sheriff's Office investigator Ken Smiley investigated the death and, not surprisingly, found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. "Nobody intentionally did anything to cause (Sturgis) harm," claimed Smiley. But then he quite fittingly added: "it's definitely [a case] I could see some civil litigation coming out of."

CCA officials are declining to answer any questions about this incident, citing the ongoing investigation and the pending civil action. The county, though, was answering questions, and claimed that they are "very much concerned. We don't take it lightly," said Bay County Commission Chairman Cornel Brock. "We will take whatever corrective action is warranted. I think we are fortunate to live in a country where we can seek legal remedies if we feel we have been wronged," Brock added. As true as that is, at this point it is of little consolation to Justin Sturgis.

Sources: The Associated Press ,The News Herald

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