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$4.6 Million Settlements in Death of Quadriplegic D.C. Prisoner

by David M. Reutter

When 27-year-old Jonathan Magbie entered the District of Columbia Jail to serve a 10-day sentence, he was a quadriplegic confined to a mouth-operated wheelchair. Four days later he was dead.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin sentenced Magbie to jail after he pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana. He had been arrested when D.C. police pulled his cousin’s car over in April 2003, finding a gun and marijuana in Magbie’s pockets. He had no prior criminal record.
Magbie, who was paralyzed from the neck down since being hit by a drunk driver at the age of 4, admitted he had bought the marijuana. Judge Retchin said she imposed the 10-day jail sentence, rather than the typical first-time offender sentence of probation, because Magbie stated he would continue smoking marijuana to alleviate the pain from his medical condition.

After Magbie was sentenced on September 20, 2004, he was taken to the D.C. Jail. While incarcerated at that facility his medical care was provided by a private contractor, Center for Correctional Health and Policy Studies, Inc. (CCHP).

When Magbie experienced respiratory problems, he was sent to the Greater Southeast Community Hospital (GSCH). At the request of CCHP, he was then transferred to the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), where CCHP’s infirmary was located. Over the next two days Magbie “was denied access to food and water, locked in a room where he could not call for help and otherwise mistreated and neglected,” according to a subsequent federal lawsuit filed by his estate.

The main problem was that Magbie required a ventilator to breathe at night, and CCHP did not have one available. When he again experienced respiratory problems on September 24, 2004, paramedics were called. They found him to be “unresponsive and very sweaty” and his underwear “was saturated with urine,” according to a D.C. inspector’s report.

A trip to the hospital was delayed by about 30 minutes because jail staff insisted on proper paperwork and a blood sugar test. Upon his arrival at the hospital, Magbie was found to be “acutely ill.” He died later that night. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was a “displaced tracheotomy tube, which resulted in oxygen failure.”

The defendants in the federal lawsuit blamed each other – the hospital blamed the jail staff, while the jail blamed the hospital. In addition to the District of Columbia, the defendants included GSHP, CCHP, Corrections Corp. of America (which operated the CTF), and two doctors.

On April 25, 2007, D.C. officials agreed to pay $1 million to Magbie’s estate, which was represented by his mother, Mary Scott. The District also made changes in how the jail handles prisoners with disabilities or medical issues.

“The family’s concern was to make certain that, to the extent anyone can prevent it, that this terrible type of event never happens again,” said Elizabeth Alexander, an ACLU attorney who represented Scott. “A series of people dealt with this young man and every single place where something could go wrong, it did go wrong.”

Additional, undisclosed settlements were reached with CCHP, GSHP and the other defendants, with the last settlements occurring in November 2008. The combined settlements, including the payment from the District of Columbia, totaled $4.6 million. See: Scott v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. DC), Case No. 1:05-cv-01853-RWR.

Additional source: Washington Post

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Related legal case

Scott v. District of Columbia