by Michael Roberts, Westword
Westword recently shared video showing the jailhouse death of Michael Lee Marshall. The homeless man, who suffered from symptoms associated with paranoid schizophrenia, choked on his own vomit after being restrained by Denver, Colorado deputies in a November 2015 incident the city coroner’s office has labeled a homicide.
It’s a shocking tale, but hardly an isolated one. We’ve been reporting for years about dubious medical care and alleged mistreatment of physically or mentally ill prisoners at prisons and similar facilities, including Ken McGill, who was awarded $11 million over a stroke he suffered at the Jefferson County jail.
Now, the Denver-area law firm that represented McGill – Holland, Holland, Edwards & Grossman, P.C. – is collaborating with Farmington, New Mexico’s Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield on a series of lawsuits involving the San Juan County Detention Center in San Juan County, New Mexico, just over the Colorado state line near Durango.
The allegations contained in the complaints come across as real life horror stories with tragic endings that could have been easily prevented but weren’t as a result of what attorney Anna Holland Edwards calls “a system that incentivizes ignoring serious medical conditions because it costs too much to treat them.”
Not that the expense would have been that great for three prisoners who lost their lives after being incarcerated at SJCDC. Both Sharon Jones, whose son, plaintiff Corey Jones, lives in Parker, and Jesus Marquez died of strep infections that could have been treated with simple antibiotics. Indeed, Marquez was felled by complications from strep throat – the sort of malady that strikes many children multiple times during their formative years without significant repercussions.
And William “Billy” Carter passed away after the jail stopped providing him with an inhaler that helped him deal with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The suit in his name maintains that “his breathing issues were treated with such deliberate indifference and reckless disregard that he prematurely passed away of this treatable condition.”
And that’s not all. Attorney Greg Tucker has approximately thirty additional (and still-living) clients whose cases against the San Juan County Detention Center have been consolidated under the name of one former prisoner, Jesse Ray Berkey; they include a handful who live in Colorado. The lawsuit maintains that these individuals “were all told again and again that they were faking their serious injuries or illnesses” – claims that proved false but saved money in the short term.
Fakery accusations were made against Jones, Marquez and Carter, too – and unfortunately, it took their deaths to definitively disprove them.
On December 1, 2014, Jones informed prison staffers that “she had been suffering from bronchitis for a couple of weeks and that she had a bad cough,” her lawsuit states. She was never examined by a doctor, however, and her condition didn’t improve. On December 16, she noted that she had just finished “a course of cold and cough medicine” but she still had “quite a bit of congestion/coughing” and asked for medication. The same sort was provided again sans any follow-up examination.
Another request for help came on December 31, 2014, with Jones noting that ”my cough + congestion still get bad sometimes.” This time, the medical staff did nothing – so on January 3, 2015, Jones wrote, “I put in a request for more cold/cough medicine (as needed). That was 3 or 4 days ago. I’ve had this ‘crud’ for over a month. Maybe I need antibiotics for infection? Probably have a sinus infection.”
Again, Jones was not subjected to an examination, even though she’d been sick for over a month – and on January 5, she died.
A couple of months later, Marquez suffered through similar circumstances, the lawsuit about his case maintains.
Prior to March 2015, he developed strep throat, and on the 2nd and 3rd of the month, medical staffers were repeatedly informed about the seriousness of his symptoms, including chest pains.
Among their responses: submitting him to a mental health evaluation.
On March 2, Marquez phoned his mother to tell her of his worsening condition, telling her “that the nurses refused to take him seriously or do anything other than give him cold medicine and Ibuprofen,” the suit states. “He begged his mother to call the nurses and get them to take him seriously.”
Marquez’s mother, who was alarmed by her son’s labored breathing during the phone call, contacted the SJCDC medical area and pleaded with personnel to transfer him to the emergency room. But Marquez wasn’t moved there, prompting another phone call to his mother in which he told her, “My chest hurts so bad,” “When I lay down it hurts worse” and, repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.”
The suit notes: “Shortly before he got off the phone, he said: ‘I feel like I am going to die’ and told his mother that he loved her.”
The next time Marquez’s mother heard from the medical staff, it was to inform her that Jesus was dead. On March 3, he succumbed to “necrotizing tracheitis and bronchopneumonia, caused by untreated strep throat,” the lawsuit reveals.
And Carter? He had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, but was not at the end stage of the malady; he controlled the symptoms with two inhalers, including one known as a QVAR. But on January 27, 2015, the jail “stopped Mr. Carter’s QVAR prescription without obtaining or starting a new prescription,” his lawsuit states.
In the days that followed, Carter’s condition rapidly deteriorated. On February 12, the suit maintains that video footage “shows Mr. Carter walking toward the washer/dryer when he dramatically took ill and appears to lie down on the floor.” But after he told the nurse who responded that he was nauseated, had vomited and hadn’t slept for five days, she allegedly failed to secure a doctor’s evaluation or diagnosis.
He was sent back to his cell – and when an officer checked on him the next morning, he was dead.
The detention center’s alleged policy of skimping on medical treatments is reinforced in the lawsuits by well over a dozen accounts from the Berkey cases – ones that didn’t end in death, but came close on a number of occasions. Here’s an example.
Marvin Veneno, a retired police officer, is a diabetic who had a heart attack in October 2015 after medical staff repeatedly denied him his known prescription medications. He had suffered a previous heart attack in 2014, for which he was prescribed about 13 pills daily for his heart condition. As he testified at the Injunction hearing, while in the jail in October 2015, medical staff knew but did not give him his necessary prescription medications, which included Lisnopril, Carvedilol, Liopitor and Brillanta. He also did not receive his insulin or diabetic meals while he was in the jail despite repeated requests and telling staff that they were urgently needed for his heart condition. He “begged” for these medications. His son even brought his medicines to the jail but they would not give them to Mr. Veneno. He testified he was just repeatedly “ignored.” He developed major chest pain and reported that his chest was “really hurting.” His arms and forearms “were turning black and blue.” When he finally saw a nurse, they gave him a TB shot. He was “begging for his life.” They made him work without medications, which made him feel “much worse.” He got so dizzy he fainted and fell and woke up in the hospital in a pool of blood. He had a “severe massive heart attack” that required “five stents in [his] right artery.”
The Veneno case took place after other lawsuits were filed, suggesting that the San Juan County Detention Center and its medical providers hadn’t altered their policies despite the additional scrutiny. But in January 2016, attorney Tucker says, he found out that the firm providing medical care for SJCDC “lost their contract and the doctors in charge of it have been terminated. So we’re happy they’re making some steps to change things over there.”
This is among the only developments that cheer Tucker, a former district attorney for San Juan County whose decision to sue a county operation has definitely been noted by many of his former colleagues.
“To me, it shocks the consciousness,” he says. “Most of these people were never convicted of anything. But when they’re put in jail, they don’t have a choice about medical care. They’re confined, and if the jail isn’t giving them the right medication, it can be a death sentence. Nurses shouldn’t act as jury and executioner, but that appears what’s been happening in some of these cases” – some serious enough that he thinks criminal investigations might be warranted.
Denver attorney John Holland is equally frustrated by the situation in San Juan County and beyond. In his view, the cases “demonstrate an admitted widespread culture and habit in the jail of treating inmates as faking their serious illnesses to avoid the jail’s constitutional obligations to provide them with urgently required medical care,” he writes via e-mail. “These lawsuits are part of a widening national effort by legal advocates for families in these calamities to serve clear notice on governments operating jails everywhere that it is much less expensive to provide required medical care than to defend grim lawsuits like these when such care is not afforded.”
Ed. Note: On January 15, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge James O. Browning denied a motion filed by current and former SJCDC prisoners to appoint an independent monitor to oversee medical care at the facility. “In the end, the plaintiffs have not produced sufficient evidence that the defendants acted deliberately indifferent to their medical needs,” Browning held. The case remains pending. See: Salazar v. San Juan County Detention Center, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:15-cv-00417-JB-LF.
This article was originally published on January 22, 2016 by Westword (www.westword.com), an independent weekly publication based in Colorado; it is reprinted with permission.
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Related legal case
Salazar v. San Juan County Detention Center
|U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:15-cv-00417-JB-LF