Wrongful Death, Whistleblower Suits Filed After Prisoner Dies at New Orleans Jail
by David M. Reutter
Two lawsuits, one alleging wrongful death and the other a whistleblower claim, were filed in 2018 against Louisiana’s Orleans Parish Jail (OPJ), the Orleans Parish Sheriffs Office (OPSO) and Sheriff Marlin Gusman, as well as the jail’s private medical provider, Correct Care Solutions (CCS) – which has since merged with another company to become Wellpath.
CCS nurse Natalie Henderson, 33, claimed in her May 2018 complaint that she was fired after she raised concerns about deficiencies in care that resulted in the death of pre-trial detainee Dennis Edwards, 41, on December 15, 2017. It was Edwards’ second night at OPJ after being booked on misdemeanor charges of theft, simple criminal damage to property and criminal trespassing. A judge had set his bail at $4,500, but Edwards apparently lacked the $450 fee to post bond. His sister, Patricia Brown, 47, filed a wrongful death claim in August 2018.
OPJ has operated under the oversight of a federal court since 2013, with the $145 million jail replacing the former Orleans Parish Prison. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.44]. However, 10 prisoners have died at the jail or shortly after being sent to a hospital by CCS staff. Six of those deaths occurred in 2017.
Colby Crawford, a 23-year-old with a history of mental health problems, overdosed and died in February 2017 after OPSO surveillance cameras recorded him injecting cocaine. Jermaine Johnson, 23, died that May after hanging himself in his cell. Terry Smith, a 71-year-old former Marine, died in August 2017, five years after he was beaten at the Orleans Parish Prison so severely that he had been confined to a nursing home ever since.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk cited Smith’s beating when issuing the 2013 consent decree. Gary Maynard, a compliance director hired in August 2016 to carry out the terms of the decree, resigned in January 2018. Darnley Hodge, who was appointed acting compliance director, has since noted a positive “cultural change” at OPJ. Yet Judge Africk voiced concerns with “the level of violence at the jail, number of suicides and attempted suicides, lack of timely and meaningful healthcare, delay in completion of required written policies, incidences of incomplete reporting, and lack of accessible mental healthcare, especially among female inmates with acute mental health issues.”
When Edwards was brought to the OPJ clinic the day he died, nurse Henderson said he was clearly “in distress,” exhibiting symptoms she said were consistent with a drug overdose. He was “not coherent,” with a heart rate “knocking on 200” – double the normal rate – and blood pressure “at stroke levels.” Someone had handcuffed his arms to the stretcher to keep him from flailing around. The odor of blood and feces emanating from his body raised concerns that Edwards was bleeding internally.
“I said, ‘He needs to go to a hospital. He is going to die,’” Henderson recalled telling a CCS supervisor.
Edwards later expired on the floor of the OPJ clinic when emergency medical responders were unable to resuscitate him. An autopsy found that he died of natural causes from hypertensive cardiovascular disease. But a toxicology report also showed evidence of naxolene, a drug given to reverse an opioid overdose, in his body at the time of death, along with morphine and nerofentanyl.
In an email sent to her CCS supervisor just 16 minutes after Edwards died, Henderson wrote that he had been in the clinic for “about 1 hour” and appeared “very unstable.” After reciting his vitals, she added, “I explain to the charge nurse that he need [sic] to send the patient out” but he “ignored everything I was asking him to do.” When Edwards required resuscitation, the same supervisor responded to Henderson’s request for help by saying, “He’s OK.”
Two weeks passed without a reply to her email, so Henderson sent a copy to Melinda Parker, CCS’ director of nursing at OPJ. Henderson said she was never asked for a formal statement concerning the events around Edwards’ medical care or death.
“If my family member died like that, I would have been upset,” she stated, explaining why she contacted her supervisors.
Her lawsuit also alleges dangerous working conditions were allowed to persist at OCJ. On five occasions in November and December 2017, Henderson said she was touched on the buttocks by prisoners while performing her duties. She also said prisoners exposed themselves or masturbated while she was passing out medication, but only once did a guard intervene to stop them.
Investigations into her complaints resulted in misdemeanor sexual battery charges against three prisoners. Charges remain unresolved against Evie Jackson, 54, who was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial in January 2018. Johnny Byrd, 21, was rebooked into OPJ that same month and charged in February 2018. Prisoner Louis Handy, 28, pleaded guilty to a sexual battery charge on January 30, 2018, receiving a six-month sentence.
Henderson said she was then threatened by Handy, who was among a group of about 20 prisoners who surrounded and threw things at her on March 18, 2018 while a guard sat idly by. In fear, she swung at some prisoners then left the area. For that she was suspended without pay for two weeks.
The incident was also the basis for a claim that Henderson posed a “security threat,” which was used to justify assigning her to a data entry position when she returned to work. Untrained in data entry, she refused to fill the position and went home, which resulted in another suspension until she was fired on April 25, 2018.
Though CCS said it terminated Henderson because she left her post, she argued things changed when she began filing complaints about Edwards’ care preceding his death.
“If I complain I get harassed or reprimanded for speaking up,” she stated. “It’s just hurtful. I’m trying to do my job and it backfires in my face.”
“I would like to shake her hand, give her a hug and say thank you for trying to save a life when they didn’t,” said Patricia Brown, who wants her brother’s death to end the string of fatalities at OPJ.
“Whoever is letting this go on and doing nothing about it, they really need to be investigated,” Brown added. “It ain’t just Dennis.”
Both Henderson and Brown are represented by attorneys Joseph Albe, Sr. and Joseph “Jay” Albe, Jr. Their lawsuits remain pending.
Sources: The Times-Picayune, nola.com, fox8live.com
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