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$690,000 Settlement in HRDC Suit Over Death of Prisoner’s Baby at CCA Jail

$690,000 Settlement in HRDC Suit Over Death of Prisoner’s Baby at CCA Jail

by Derek Gilna

In August 2014, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm, settled a federal lawsuit filed by PLN’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), on behalf of a former prisoner held at the CCA-operated Silverdale Detention Facility – a county jail in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The suit alleged deliberate indifference in connection with CCA staff’s handling of the prisoner’s pregnancy, resulting in the death of her baby.

The settlement, executed by the parties on August 9, 2014, included the payment of $690,000 to former prisoner Countess Clemons, who was 18 years old and pregnant when she was housed at Silverdale in November 2010 and went into premature labor. She was serving a misdemeanor sentence at the time and had no felony record. It was her first pregnancy.

In her complaint, Clemons alleged that CCA had violated her rights “under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and the laws of Tennessee when they knowingly and with deliberate indifference ... denied her and her child reasonable medical treatment for serious medical conditions, thereby causing her extensive physical and emotional pain and suffering and the death of her son.”

Although CCA’s own institutional policy specifically notes that “incarcerated females have a high percentage of increased-risk pregnancies,” staff at Silverdale did not provide adequate medical care when Clemons experienced premature labor.

At around 5:00pm on November 19, 2010, when Clemons was approximately five months pregnant, she and several other prisoners notified CCA Officer Badger that Clemons was having severe abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. There was a delay before she was able to see a nurse, who was busy distributing medication.

When Clemons finally saw CCA nurse Teresa Smith several hours later, after 7:00pm, she was clearly in great pain, unable to sit in a chair and had to lie down on the floor due to her discomfort. Nurse Smith received permission from an off-site doctor to have Clemons taken to a hospital emergency room, and entered an order to that effect at 7:43pm.

However, Clemons was instead taken by wheelchair to a cell in an intake processing area at the CCA jail. The cell had a bare “bench” with no mattress. She was left in the cell for over two hours, during which time she began having contractions, bled heavily from her vagina, vomited and pleaded for help.

She was told by another CCA staff member, Officer Garcia, that she had to wait because it was “count time” and because various “codes” had been called at the facility.

Clemons’ pants were soaked as a result of her water breaking and bleeding, and a CCA employee brought her another pair of pants. According to a prisoner later tasked with cleaning the intake cell, the cell’s floor was covered in blood.

After several hours, Nurse Smith realized that Clemons had not yet been taken to the hospital as ordered. An ambulance was summoned and she was transported to Erlanger Hospital. Despite the efforts of hospital staff, it was too late to save her baby, Roland LeBron Clemons, who was born, lived just over an hour and then died. The state issued a certificate of live birth.

According to Erlanger’s medical records, Clemons did not arrive at the hospital until 10:32pm – more than five hours after she first sought help from CCA staff. An Erlanger physician indicated that had she made it to the hospital earlier, they might have been able to save her baby’s life.

However, Clemons’ traumatic experience was not yet over. CCA officers initially refused to let her call her family from the hospital to inform them about the death of her baby, but hospital staff insisted and she was finally allowed to make a call. She was then returned to Silverdale handcuffed, shackled and with a waist chain and black box. A CCA counselor asked her if she “blamed God” for the death of her baby; Clemons replied that she blamed CCA.

Following her return to Silverdale on November 20, 2010, she filed an informal grievance noting the delay in seeing a nurse, her vaginal bleeding and the fact that Officer Garcia had refused to help her because it was count time. The response to the grievance indicated that there was video footage of the events of November 19; however, CCA staff said no changes would be made in the jail’s policies.

Clemons was released on furlough to attend her baby’s funeral and retained the Human Rights Defense Center to represent her in a wrongful death lawsuit against CCA. HRDC sent a letter to the company, demanding that CCA preserve evidence related to the incident, including any videotape. HRDC also arranged for a grief counselor to meet with Clemons at Silverdale while she served the remainder of her sentence. She was released in April 2011, and HRDC filed lawsuits in both state and federal court in Chattanooga, Tennessee on November 17, 2011.

CCA later admitted that it had preserved the wrong video – saving the tape from November 18 instead of the 19th – and had destroyed the latter tape despite HRDC’s letter to retain evidence in the case.

Clemons filed for sanctions, alleging that CCA was negligent in failing to preserve the correct video. CCA argued the destruction of the video was inadvertent, since it customarily only retains the footage for 90 days, at which time it tapes over the video, and a part-time employee had mistakenly copied the footage from the wrong date. Assistant Warden Michael T. Quinn failed to ensure the correct video had been kept.

After reviewing the pleadings, U.S. District Court Judge Curtis L. Collier held on July 14, 2014 that the destruction of the video constituted gross negligence which caused a “significant burden ... on Plaintiffs,” and agreed that attorney fees and costs were an appropriate sanction. The judge also ruled that a “mandatory inference instruction” would be given to the jury at the scheduled trial, finding that “[s]uch a sanction is appropriate to account for the culpability of CCA and remedy the prejudice to Plaintiffs.” Accordingly, the jury would be instructed that the missing video footage would have been unfavorable to the company.

CCA agreed to settle the lawsuit the following month for $690,000, inclusive of attorney fees and costs, after protracted litigation, extensive discovery, numerous depositions and the retention of medical experts. Twenty-two other female prisoners at Silverdale had provided statements in support of Clemons regarding the events of November 19, 2010.

Unfortunately, the death of Clemons’ newborn son was not the first time a pregnant prisoner had been denied medical care at a CCA facility, nor would it be the last.

In 2005, Jennifer Bozeman, 26, gave birth in the infirmary at the CCA-operated Bay County Jail in Florida after complaining of labor pains for over four hours. Her baby was airlifted to a hospital, where it was treated for birth defects. CCA subsequently released a 32-page report that documented mistakes and policy violations the night that Bozeman went into labor. [See: PLN, July 2006, p.1].

Meredith Manning, 23, gave birth during her incarceration at the CCA-run Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility in Nashville, Tennessee in 2004. She was reportedly left bleeding for three days in a solitary cell and ignored by CCA staff. Her baby was born after she was finally taken to a hospital, and lived for only three hours. [See: PLN, Feb. 2006, p.1]. Manning filed suit, and a former CCA nurse filed an affidavit on her behalf. The case settled for $250,000. See: Manning v. CCA, Third Circuit Court for Davidson County, Tennessee, Civil Action No. 05C-2608.

Rosalyn Bradford, 23, suffered from an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy at the Silverdale Detention Facility in 1987; according to news reports she was left screaming in pain in her cell for almost 12 hours before being taken to a hospital, where she died. [See: PLN, Feb. 1993, p.2].

And in June 2012, Autumn Miller, a prisoner at the Dawson State Jail in Texas, gave birth in a toilet at the facility to a baby girl, Gracie, who died four days later. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.38].

Thus, including Countess Clemons, there are at least five known cases of pregnant prisoners being denied adequate medical care at CCA facilities, resulting in the death of one prisoner and four of their babies.

Private prison operators such as CCA, which confine approximately 8% of all state and federal prisoners in the United States, have often been accused of understaffing, inadequately training their employees and restricting prisoners’ access to necessary medical treatment as a means of cutting costs in order to increase profits.

Clemons was represented by HRDC general counsel Lance Weber, Memphis, Tennessee attorney Andy C. Clarke and Arkansas attorney Luther Sutter. See: Clemons v. Corrections Corporation of America, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-00339-CLC-WBC.


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Related legal case

Clemons v. Corrections Corporation of America