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$140,000 Settlement in Death of Asthmatic Texas Prisoner

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will pay $140,000 to settle a federal lawsuit stemming from the needless asthma-related death of a prisoner at the McConnell prison unit in August 2004.

At least six guards and a nurse were present as Micah Burrell, 24, lay on the floor of his Beeville prison cell gasping for air. Other prisoners in neighboring cells of the segregation unit where Burrell was confined had summoned the guards for help after Burrell told them he needed immediate medical attention.

The guards and prison nurse responded, but no help was forthcoming. Instead they stood around looking down on Burrell, made jokes and jeered at him while accusing him of ?faking? his symptoms, according to Scott Medlock, an attorney with Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) who represented Burrell?s family in the lawsuit. ?That?s not what asthma looks like,? one guard reportedly said, while the nurse chimed in ?no one dies of an asthma attack.?

Despite her extensive medical training, the nurse was wrong. After struggling to breathe for more than an hour?with guards and the nurse present the entire time?Burrell was finally transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Burrell?s demise is the latest in a string of preventable deaths at the McConnell Unit in recent years. Between September 2000 and November 2005 at least 16 prisoners have died there. Each one, said Medlock, could have likely been avoided if policy had been followed and adequate medical attention had been provided to the prisoners in a timely manner. In Burrell?s case his death could have easily been prevented with the correct medication. But the prison?s medical staff had repeatedly failed to provide him with the $60 inhaler he needed to stay alive.

Another prisoner, Darrel Wafer, was literally ?cooked to death? after he collapsed in a shower at the McConnell Unit in May 2003. Again guards and a nurse were present but failed to act, leaving Wafer under a stream of scalding hot water that eventually reached 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

The deaths at McConnell are merely examples that illustrate a wider problem with health care in TDCJ, said Wayne Krause, another TCRP attorney. These problems were also noted in a review of the prison system by the Sunset Commission in 2006. The Commission?s report noted that the system?s inherent secrecy ?makes it difficult for the public and policymakers to evaluate how well the system works,? the report reads.
?Data related to quality assurance efforts, offender deaths and disease, and complaints and grievances can show the success or deficiency of the efforts undertaken to address offenders? healthcare needs.?

The $140,000 settlement, signed off on by Governor Rick Perry on March 8, 2007, is little consolation to Burrell?s family and does nothing to alleviate the constitutional deficiencies in TDCJ?s medical care, nor will it do anything to prevent more unnecessary deaths in the future.
Currently, says Krause, the problems are ?systemic ? causing people to die, and [families] to grieve.? The family?s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. See: McCoy v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice, USDC SD TX, Case No. 05-CV-370.

Additional source: Austin Chronicle

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Related legal case

McCoy v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice