Against the backdrop of the recent hunger strike involving thousands of prisoners in California, the death last year of an Illinois jail prisoner who died after refusing to eat or drink is especially poignant.
Lyvita Gomes, 52, died in January 2012 following a 15-day hunger strike that began after the mentally ill woman was arrested and incarcerated at the Lake County Jail near Chicago.
Funeral home workers cleaning out a hotel room where Lyvita had lived found stacks of unopened mail. In one stack was the jury summons that initiated the series of events that led to her death. Ironically, Lyvita was not a U.S. citizen and thus ineligible to serve on a jury.
Born in India, Lyvita received a U.S. visa in 2004 and moved to Atlanta to work at the headquarters of Delta Airlines. The airline laid her off in 2007 and she relocated to Illinois using her still-valid visa to obtain a driver’s license.
It was her driver’s license that put Lyvita into the pool of potential jurors in Lake County. She received a summons to report for jury duty on July 5, 2011; the summons indicated that non-citizens were exempt but had to report with documentary proof of their immigration status to claim the exemption. Lyvita never showed up.
A judge summoned her to court to explain her absence. She ignored the summons. Consequently, on October 12, 2011, a deputy came to her hotel room to arrest her. Lyvita struggled with the deputy as she was taken to the patrol car and was charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest.
She spent two days at the Lake County Jail, and during that time it was discovered that her visa had expired. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was notified and began deportation proceedings.
The jury duty case was dropped, but not the charge for resisting arrest. When Lyvita failed to appear at two hearings in that case, she was rearrested and booked into the Lake County Jail on December 14, 2011. A mental health intake screening resulted in a referral to a psychiatrist who discussed medications with Lyvita. She refused them.
A public defender appointed to represent Lyvita reported her strange behavior at a court hearing. Apparently she thought she was in court to take tennis lessons. Her lawyer requested a mental fitness hearing.
On December 21, 2011, Lyvita was moved to the jail’s medical unit after showing signs of weight loss. She had refused to eat or drink since entering the facility.
Employees of Correct Care Solutions, which has a $2 million annual contract to provide medical services at the Lake County Jail, checked her vital signs every four hours but sought no additional medical treatment or a court order to force feed Lyvita. They said there was no need, as she appeared stable.
Lyvita’s public defender learned of her hunger strike on December 27. He went to the jail in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade her to eat and drink, then sought to expedite the mental fitness hearing.
Lyvita never made it to that hearing. She was transferred to the Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, where she died on January 3, 2012 due to malnourishment and dehydration.
“The impression we got is that when she got to the hospital, her condition was so grave there was nothing they could do,” said public defender Greg Tiscay.
Previously, Correct Care Solutions had paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that its employees failed to properly care for a mentally ill prisoner in Alexandria, Virginia who died after refusing to eat or drink. [See: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.24]. Apparently that lawsuit had little educational – or deterrent – value to the company.
Correct Care executive vice president Patrick Cummisky said the company’s employees are trained to monitor a hunger striker’s pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and respiratory rate, which he claimed is the industry standard.
Lake County Sheriff Michael Curran blamed Lyvita’s death on broader public policy issues. “Prisons have become the dumping ground for the mentally ill,” he stated. “We probably handle these situations better than most.”
But Lyvita’s brother, Oydsteven Gomes, and Lake County United, a coalition of religious groups with a social justice focus, questioned Lyvita’s treatment from her arrest for failing to appear for jury duty to the medical care she received while incarcerated.
In April 2012, Lake County officials hired an attorney to investigate whether misconduct or neglect by jail staff had contributed to Lyvita’s death and the death of another prisoner, Eugene Gruber, 51, who died on March 3, 2012, several months after a violent altercation with guards left him paralyzed due to a broken neck. His death was ruled a homicide.
“I do not know if this is ... a failure of the prison system or a careless culture and attitude toward individuals whatever their circumstances,” Oydsteven Gomes stated. “I do not wish [the inquiry] to be a matter of reprisals but more a matter of learning the truth so that attitudes can change.”
Sheriff Curran said he was going to book himself into the Lake County Jail in April 2012 as a “show of faith,” to “highlight the realities of the exceptional treatment of the inmates at his jail.” Needless to say, it is unlikely that the sheriff’s experience at the jail would be similar to that of most prisoners; regardless, he did not go through with the publicity stunt, saying he had an unspecified “scheduling conflict.”
On June 7, 2012, Lyvita’s family, represented by the People’s Law Office, filed a wrongful death suit against the county, Sheriff Curran, various jail employees and Correct Care Solutions, alleging jail staff were indifferent to her health and safety. The suit remains pending. See: Gomes v. Lake County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:12-cv-04439.
Gruber’s family has also filed a lawsuit against county officials and Correct Care Solutions, and a jail nurse was fired in connection with Gruber’s death.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, www.corspecops.com, www.dailyherald.com, www.stltoday.com
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Related legal case
Gomes v. Lake County
|U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:12-cv-04439