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Deaths of Prisoners in Indiana, California and Arkansas Linked to Flu Virus

A winter outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus is being blamed for the death of one prisoner and sickening 40 others, including five staff members, at the Putnamville Correctional Facility in Greencastle, Indiana in January 2016. Some of the prisoners were in serious enough condition to require hospitalization at the nearby Terre Haute Regional Hospital. And while prison officials defended their response to the outbreak, prisoners’ family members were critical.

“I don’t think the response has been very good because I’ve tried to personally contact them and I was constantly given the run around,” Rhonda Williams told reporters for WISH-TV. Williams said her son, who was serving time at the Putnamville facility, was only offered a flu shot after he was already sick.

The TV station reported that other family members had come forward to complain the prison was dirty and that protective masks were provided only to prisoners who were also already ill.

Prison Superintendent Brian Smith told reporters at a January 26, 2016 news conference that the outbreak of H1N1 – a strain of swine flu – began on January 16, but that prison staff were not made aware of the incident until one day before a public announcement. Smith said masks were not provided to prisoners until the afternoon of the news conference.

“I didn’t realize the severity of it until Saturday,” Smith said. “We had a situation with the guy that passed away but then the other guy didn’t get sick until Saturday.”

In response to the outbreak, prison officials sanitized parts of the facility, such as common areas, with bleach, germicides and other cleaners. In addition, staff members and prisoners were offered masks and hand sanitizer, and flu shots were given to anyone who requested them.

Despite criticism from prisoners’ families, Indiana Department of Correction Medical Director Dr. Michael Mitcheff praised the facility’s efforts.

“I think the prison’s response was excellent,” Mitcheff stated. “I think the staff proactively admitted patients to the observation unit to keep them – I think the superintendent was as proactive as I’ve even seen.”

Mitcheff said those who became especially ill had complications due to MRSA, a serious staph infection that is often resistant to antibiotics. He said the prisoner who died was 35 years old and had developed both MRSA and pneumonia, as well as being afflicted with the H1N1 virus. The prisoner’s family requested that his name not be released.

This past winter’s flu outbreak is just the latest to plague prison systems in a number of states. A similar H1N1 outbreak in 2014 in California and a mysterious flu-like bug in Indiana and Arkansas killed at least two prisoners, prompted the quarantine of hundreds more and compelled at least one federal judge to suspend criminal proceedings in his court “in order to assure the health and safety” of judicial staff, attorneys and the general public.

One day after the Fresno County, California Sheriff’s Office announced the death of 60-year-old prisoner Francisco Rosales Gamboa due to H1N1, and diagnosed three other prisoners with the virus on January 13, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill ordered a week-long suspension of proceedings involving Fresno County jail prisoners.

“Of particular significance is the medical information that a person who has the virus is contagious for twenty-four (24) hours before they are symptomatic,” O’Neill’s order said, “and precluding exposure of the inmate population to others outside of the jail is the very safest thing to do from a proactive and preventative standpoint.” See: In re Health Emergency, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:14-MC-00003.

“It is the right thing to do to protect everyone’s health,” agreed Fresno defense attorney Anthony Capozzi, who added that the order to suspend proceedings was a first in the 41 years he had been practicing law. Capozzi said the major impact of Judge O’Neill’s order was to delay sentencing hearings in federal criminal cases.

More than 300 prisoners at the Fresno County jail were quarantined after Rosales Gamboa’s death, and at least nine showed H1N1-like symptoms. Rosales Gamboa had been jailed since September 2013 on a drunk driving charge, and was also being held on a federal immigration detainer.

Farther north, officials at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, California, near San Francisco, reported on January 14, 2014 that three prisoners had been diagnosed with H1N1 and four more had symptoms. Prisoners were still being transported to court hearings, but non-official visitors to the jail were turned away for nearly a week.

“We’re also giving our staff the proper equipment – masks and gloves – to make sure they can take care of the inmates,” said Santa Clara County Sheriff Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup.

Across the country, meanwhile, around 240 female prisoners at the McPherson Unit in Newport, Arkansas were quarantined after an unidentified 42-year-old woman died of flu-like symptoms on January 11, 2014. Although prison officials said she did not test positive for H1N1, they brought in extra doctors and nurses to examine the nearly 900 prisoners at the facility and to treat others who might be affected.

The quarantine had ended by January 16, 2014, Shea Wilson, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Correction, told Prison Legal News.

“Two housing areas of the McPherson Unit were placed under quarantine due to flu-like symptoms,” she said. “Those restrictions have been lifted.”

When asked whether the flu vaccine was made available to prisoners, Wilson told PLN, “We do offer flu shots to all inmates, but they have the option of not taking them.”

Finally, in Indiana, where three people statewide died from the flu during the same winter, prisoners at the Allen County jail were given masks to prevent the spread of influenza after several began exhibiting flu-like symptoms, even though jail officials refused to confirm that an outbreak had occurred.

According to Allen County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jeremy Tinkel, the jail was simply taking precautions, and was working with county health officials to have prisoners vaccinated.

Prisoners are at greater risk from communicable diseases such as H1N1 and other forms of the flu due to their confined living conditions and reliance on prison or jail medical staff for treatment. [See, e.g., PLN, Aug. 2007, p.1].

Sources: The Fresno Bee,,,,,,,

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Related legal case

In re Health Emergency