Articles Posted in Civil Rights

The link below will take you to an article from the Yamhill News-Register covering five deaths that occurred in a six year period at the Yamhill County Jail.  In addition to the closed Jed Hawk Myers case, I am currently representing family members in three cases against Yamhill County and Wellpath, their contracted medical provider, for Civil Rights violations resulting in the death of folks who had not been convicted of any crime.  It doesn’t take very long to realize there is some commonality to these cases.

In the case of Kathy Norman, both the Yamhill County Sheriff’s deputies and the Wellpath Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) on duty were fully aware that Ms. Norman was beginning to detox from alcohol; they had been told by the ER providers, the transporting police officer, and Ms. Norman herself.  They also knew that detoxing from alcohol can be easily and successfully treated with medication.  They knew that the condition of folks detoxing from alcohol can change rapidly and can be deadly.  Nonetheless, they accepted custody of Ms. Norman and then never evaluated her detox symptoms or took any vital signs.  The Norman case has some similarities to the Jed Hawk Myers and Debbie Samples cases from 2015 and 2016.  All these cases involved detainees who were identified to be medically vulnerable and who needed to be lodged in a cell with video surveillance.  In both the Myers and Norman cases, they were put into these cells without any vital signs being taken, and no effort by anyone to return to get that crucial information.  In both the Norman and Myers cases deputies simply looked through the very narrow glass window in the cell door to do “security checks”. Security checks involve a deputy looking long enough (about 2 seconds) to make sure the person in the cell is present and alive.  These are not checks designed to obtain medical information.  In both Myers and Norman, it took them being on the floor and not breathing before anyone entered their cells to check on them.  In both the Samples and Norman cases, hospital providers communicated to the jail staff the need for specific care and conditions to watch out for; Samples being suicidal and Norman detoxing from alcohol.  Tragically in both situations, that advice went largely ignored and resulted in the preventable deaths from the exact conditions the Sheriff’s office was warned of.  Myers, Samples, and Norman needed to be checked on more frequently and with more attention until they were stable, or sent to an appropriate medical provider where they could get the necessary care.  Jail policies call for different levels of checks in terms of increments of time.  All inmates are checked by deputies at less than one-hour intervals; medical and suicide checks can be in 30 or 15 minute increments.  None of the victims were looked at any more often than any other detainees with no medical issues.

The county will say they have contracted with Wellpath and that they rely on them to deal with all medical issues.  “They are the experts…” But jail policies and Oregon laws state that ultimately inmate healthcare is still the county’s responsibility.  After all, it was only five months prior to Ms. Norman’s death that Sheriff Svenson wrote an editorial in the Yamhill County News Register taking full responsibility for Mr. Myers’ and Ms. Samples’ deaths.  “The buck stops here”, he wrote.  Apparently, that is just until the next jail death or his re-election comes along, as there have been three more deaths since that confessional editorial.  After Ms. Norman’s death, Sheriff Svenson was quoted in the local paper saying there is “zero indication” the staff was negligent in anyway.  He went on to praise the medical provider saying, “the contractor is doing a great job.” and “it’s nice to know there is a nurse in the jail at all times. It’s been very good.” While it is good to have someone with some medical training, it is too much for one LPN to take on alone.  There are times when the LPN is not able to closely monitor those in medical because the nurse often has to spend hours passing out medication to the other inmates and/or may be over at the juvenile facility.  How can this be Sheriff Svenson’s response when both medical and Yamhill County deputies knew Ms. Norman was detoxing, yet they took no vitals, took no detox history, did no detox evaluation, did not closely monitor her, withheld medication, and never called the ER staff for more information they might need to treat her.  They just locked her into the cell, never entered her cell to check on her condition, and failed to give her lifesaving medication.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have repeatedly highlighted the fact that contracting out prison services to private companies often leads to tragic results. This is especially true when medical services are among the key government responsibilities put out for bidding.

Case law at both the federal and state levels is clear: when the government takes away someone’s freedom it also assumes responsibility for their well-being. Prisoners may not be a popular constituency among politicians, but that does absolve government of its legal and moral duty to offer adequate care for the people it locks up.

The latest example of this trend can be found in Maine. A recent article on the website of Maine Public Broadcasting outlines a lawsuit brought by “the NAACP’s Maine State Prison chapter… raising allegations of inadequate prison healthcare services. In a report that details the stories of anonymous residents, they allege that heart conditions, infections, diabetes and other serious conditions are being neglected or misdiagnosed by prison healthcare provider, Wellpath LLC.”

I have used this space more than once to focus on healthcare and prisons, with a particular emphasis on Wellpath. The Tennessee-based company touts itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments.” In plain English, that means they are a for-profit company that provides medical care in jails and prisons nationwide.

As I noted in a post last October, Wellpath is frequently sued for being deliberately indifferent to their patient/inmate’s constitutional right to adequate medical care. A California newspaper reported last year that since 2003 Wellpath has been sued “at least 1,395 times in federal court.” Wrongful death actions figured prominently in this tally.

Recent news from both the east and west coasts has highlighted WellPath’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. That news also raises, yet again, questions about whether the company does everything it should to care for the people placed in its charge.

A California newspaper’s investigation of deaths in county jails is shining a light on the issue of both for-profit prisons and outsourced prison healthcare. An investigation by the Redding Record-Searchlight found that “from 2005 to 2019, about 1,960 people died in the custody of California county jails.” Even granted the state’s immense size this is a shocking figure, one that highlights the importance of civil rights laws protecting even an unpopular group such as prisoners.

The figures compiled by the Record-Searchlight work out to roughly 130 jail deaths per year. Last year an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting put the 2018 figure for Oregon and Washington combined at 39, and noted that jail deaths have been trending upwards over the last decade. When you adjust for population (about 12 million for our two states versus just under 40 million for California) the overall mortality rate is similar.

I have written about jail deaths here in Oregon before. Both here and in the Record-Searchlight’s reporting one name keeps turning up. Wellpath is a Tennessee-based company which describes itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality, compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments.” In ordinary English that means they are a private, for-profit, health-care company that specializes in offering care for prisoners. The newspaper quotes a psychologist who consults on prison staff training and prison conditions saying that for-profit companies like Wellpath do “an absolutely awful job.”

Last week the retired sheriff of Norfolk, Virginia was arrested and charged with numerous counts of bribery, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper reports Robert McCabe is accused “of taking cash, a loan, travel, gifts and campaign contributions from contractors providing food and medical care at the city jail” over the course nearly a quarter-century as the county’s chief law enforcement officer.

Along with the former sheriff, the founder of a Tennessee company that is part of the private prison and prison services industry was also arrested. The Post reports the Norfolk contract for prison medical services “was worth more than $3 million a year” and the company in question, Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath), “continues to provide medical care at the Norfolk jail.” In exchange for the bribes the sheriff allegedly negotiated with Correct Care’s founder outside normal channels “and instructed employees to give his company inside information on potential contracts, including confidential bids from competitors”

This case caught my eye for two reasons. First, it is yet another example of what is wrong with our system of contracting prison management out to private corporations. Prisons are an unpleasant part of life, but they are also a public trust. It is essential that they be run in both a humane and accountable way, something that is fundamentally at odds with placing management or essential services – such as medical care – in the hands of companies primarily interested in making profits.

An incident in Colorado, recently recounted by The Oregonian, offers striking insight into the culture of neglect in our prisons and the important role our courts must play in ensuring justice is done.

On the night of July 31, 2018, the newspaper reports, an inmate at a county jail in Denver “gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit.” The paper reports that the entire incident was “captured on surveillance video.” Yet, astonishingly, “an internal investigation by the Denver Sheriff’s Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing.”

To call this appalling is an understatement. As I noted in a blog last March, an 8-1 Supreme court ruling dating all the way back to 1976 (Estelle v Gamble) clearly established the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. The court wrote that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” falls under the constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The series begins with several examples of prison and jail deaths, followed by a stark statistic: “Since 2008, at least 306 people across the Northwest have died after being taken to a county jail.” Over the course of a three-part investigation published last week Oregon Public Broadcasting, working in cooperation with other public media outlets in Oregon and Washington, offered a detailed, and disturbing, look at the state of health care available to people jailed here in the Pacific Northwest.

Notably, the death statistic does not come from an official source. As OPB reports, “until now, that number was unknown, in part because Oregon and Washington have not comprehensively tracked those deaths in county jails.” In other words: it took a media investigation to determine the extent of the problem, one that OPB calls “a crisis of rising death rates in overburdened jails that have been set up to fail the inmates they are tasked with keeping safe.”

OPB reports that suicide is “by far the leading cause of jail deaths in the Pacific Northwest, (accounting) for nearly half of all cases with a known cause of death.” Yet the issues the series raises concerning negligence and indifference on the part of jail staff are also significant. The series offers a number of examples of inmates who died after being served food to which they were allergic, or whose complaints about serious medical issues were ignored.

A lengthy article recently published in The New Yorker is shining a light on the extraordinary extent to which private companies have taken over health care in prisons. It is a trend that has grown quietly – and largely out of sight – over the last several decades, combining many of the worst elements of both our dysfunctional national health care system and the morally and legally ambiguous trend toward privately-run, for-profit, prisons.

The article details numerous cases in which private companies are alleged to have provided inadequate care whether through neglect or inadequate staffing and concludes: “Taken as a whole, evidence from cases across the country suggests that four decades of policy failures in both health care and criminal justice reform have left a largely neglected population vulnerable and, at times, at risk, and that for-profit companies, which were promoted as a solution, have instead become an integral part of a troubled system.”

Because prisoners represent a population with which many people have little sympathy, it is important to note here that cities, states and the federal government have a legal obligation to care for the people they lock up. “The standard of care that incarcerated people have a right to receive was established in the landmark case of Estelle v Gamble in 1976,” the magazine notes. In that case the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” violates the constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As the article goes on to note, “Estelle also spawned a wave of civil-rights litigation seeking to enforce the Eighth Amendment protection,” a process which, over time, caused the standard of required care to become more precisely defined.

A recent article in The Oregonian outlined what has become a depressingly common story: the abrupt disappearance of Saudi Arabian students facing criminal charges here in Oregon. The newspaper reports that it “has found criminal cases involving at least five Saudi nationals who vanished before they faced trial or completed their jail sentence in Oregon.”

The suspects “include two accused rapists, a pair of hit-and-run drivers and one man with child porn on his computer.” A 2014 case detailed by the newspaper fits the pattern: shortly after the man’s arrest a Saudi diplomat appeared at the local district attorney’s office to post bail for the accused student. Having made bail and been released the defendant later failed to appear for his trial. As the newspaper puts it, the “cases raise new questions about the role the Saudi government may have played in assisting its citizens fleeing prosecution in Oregon – or possibly elsewhere in the United States.”

Any conduct along those lines would be a serious violation of diplomatic norms. Questions like that lie outside the scope of this blog, but there are other issues raised by these cases that are of immediate concern to us here.

This week The Oregonian carried the extraordinary story of a man who “was arraigned on 34 charges for allegedly recording colleagues at the Banana Republic Factory Store” on NE Cascades Parkway near the Portland airport. The 34-year-old allegedly placed hidden cameras in the women’s restroom at the store and recorded video of dozens of partially naked women, including children.

What is especially shocking is the revelation that the man had faced similar allegations at his previous job as a pharmacist with Kaiser Permanente. Last month the suspect “was arraigned on 71 similar charges for allegedly recording 51 men and women using the unisex bathrooms and changing rooms at the Kaiser Permanente facility” on Portland’s Northeast 138thAvenue. The man was fired after another employee “found a camera” in one of the bathrooms.

The article notes that some of the employees from the Banana Republic store are considering a civil suit. Two areas bear particularly close examination. First, there is the question of whether the Banana Republic store did everything it could to prevent this man, or anyone else, from invading employees’ privacy by installing secret cameras in the restroom. We need to know more about the nature of the cameras, where they were positioned, how they operated and how long they were in place. Most importantly, we need to consider what the store could have done to prevent this and other forms of employee misconduct. The U.S. Department of Labor’s website on workplace health and safety (see link below) lays out the standards all employers are expected to uphold. Difficult questions clearly need to be asked about how the store managed to get itself into this position in the first place.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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