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Two Pennsylvania Prisoners Win $1.2 Million For MRSA Skin Infections Contracted County Jail

by John E. Dannenberg

An uncontrolled and untreated chronic infection of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a highly contagious, stubborn, disfiguring and sometime fatal bacterial disease, has permeated the Bucks County Correctional Facility (BCCF), unabated, for at least four years. BCCF officials have refused to treat the infections, inform prisoners of the outbreak or sanitize the facility. In the first of what may prove to be a landslide of lawsuits on behalf of injured and killed prisoners, two former prisoners were awarded $1.2 million in damages by a jury in the U.S. District Court (E.D. PA) in a suit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations.

Kevin Keller contracted MRSA between July 10 and August 28, 2002, from his cellmate Gary Brown, who had a huge, open, draining MRSA boil on his back. After one month of cohabitation, Keller developed painful boils under his armpits, which grew to the size of golf balls. He was denied his request for sick call, and received no treatment. Keller popped the abscesses and they eventually went away. He was not told of an MRSA outbreak or that he should not touch his infections. Throughout this period, Keller continued to work in the BCCF kitchen, handling food for all 600 prisoners and for staff.

On August 27, 2002, Keller popped a small purple infection on his scrotum. Two days later, it began to drain, with long white things" protruding from the open wound. His written requests (over days) for medical treatment were denied. Guards told him when he demanded treatment that he would be infracted for misconduct. On August 28, when he signed up for sick call, he was told no medical aid was available for four days over the Labor Day weekend. Bleeding profusely and in excruciating pain, he snuck down to the dispensary where he was excoriated for showing up. The nurse then told him It'll be alright," and he could see a doctor after Labor Day. He was then locked up in punitive segregation without seeing a doctor, and given ibuprofen for his pain. But to relieve pain, he was forced to drain the wound on his scrotum every two hours over the toilet.

Keller continued to send in sick call slips and grievances for failure to give him medical care. When his scrotum was the size of a grapefruit, he was hospitalized at Doylestown Hospital, where he was operated on and remained for a month. Upon his return, having lost considerable weight, he still suffered from chills and high fever. Although the hospital ordered bandages and access to hot water for cleansing and soaking, BCCF staff denied this to him. Keller was released from BCCF on November 8, 2002.

Benjamin Martin was incarcerated at BCCF in 2001, where he developed a major abscess on his leg, causing nausea and sleeplessness. Dispensary staff told him it was a spider bite. He repeatedly requested help, but Head Nurse Joan Crowe told him, I have no time for you." A week later, the abscess burst, exposing a huge MRSA infection. When he was finally taken to Doylestown Hospital, he was told that the delay in treatment caused the infection to go up into his hip and bones, threatening amputation of the leg. Today, Martin still suffers nerve damage on both legs where infectious boils had to be removed. When he came back from the hospital, the warden suddenly decided to parole Martin.

BCCF prisoner Virginia Brejak wasn't so lucky." For several months before her death, she suffered from painful, itchy, erupting boils on her head and body. She was diagnosed with MRSA, but died of a massive brain hemorrhage, believed to be caused by an MRSA abscess.

BCCF medical staff intentionally suppressed disclosure of the MRSA outbreak, then known to infect 50 of the 600 prisoners. Defendants Gordian Ehrlacher, Director of the Bucks County Department of Health, Dr. Lewis Polk, Medical Director of Bucks County Health Department and Joan Crowe, RN, BCCF Health Director instead falsely informed the infected prisoners that the boils were bedsores," spider bites," foliculitis," pimples," and allergies," and not communicable infections. Thus, the willful nondisclosure of the contagious health hazard prevented the hapless prisoners from protecting themselves.

But even if they had known, BCCF had no medical isolation facilities or segregated housing for infected prisoners. Instead, upon seeking medical aid, they were punished by being put in the hole." As a result, many infected prisoners, fearing retaliation, suffered in silence while uncontrollably spreading the disease.

Pennsylvania Code 37 § 95.242(2)(xii) requires reporting of an infectious disease outbreak. But the ghouls running BCCF remained silent even at the end of August, 2002, when four prisoners and one guard had MRSA symptoms; the prisoners received no treatment. As of the 2003 filing of Keller's and Martin's civil rights complaint, there were 25 known new cases of MRSA since January, 2003, still not being treated.

Needless to say, it wasn't hard to prove to a jury the deliberate indifference to plaintiffs' rights. On January 10, 2005, the federal jury returned verdicts of $800,000 to Keller and $400,000 to Martin. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are there pending other individual suits by prisoners and guards, but in December, 2004, the U.S. District Court (E.D. PA) certified a class action suit against Bucks County on behalf of all current BCCF prisoners. The suits note not only the illegal suppression of notice of infectious disease and the cruel, callous denial of medical treatment, but also complain that the jail's known rain leaks for twelve years have resulted in chronic mold buildup, which, coupled with grossly inadequate cleaning, have nurtured the perfect environment for entrenching MRSA into the air, water, food, walls and floors of BCCF.

Plaintiffs are represented by Doylestown attorneys Martha Sperling and Anita Alberts. Former BCCF prisoners who may have suffered from MRSA should seek representation for their injuries. Keller v. County of Bucks, US DC ED PA, Case No 03-4017.

PLN previously reported on MRSA outbreaks nationwide. (See: PLN, Dec.2003, p.10.) Prisoners experiencing MRSA symptoms should practice clean hygiene to minimize co-infection. If custody staff balk at treatment, prisoners should complain through family to public health officials or to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. MRSA can be deadly.

Additional Sources: New York Times,

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Keller v. County of Bucks

Keller v. County of Bucks