Deliberate Indifference To Dying Inmates
September 29, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The medical staff at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia didn’t think Henry Stewart’s medical condition required emergency care. Stewart’s black outs, inability to eat solid food, and vomiting blood weren’t serious, despite his pleas, dutifully scrawled on numerous grievance forms. Now Henry Stewart is dead, the jail faces a civil suit from Stewart’s family, and Virginia’s Attorney General wants the Department of Justice to investigate why two inmates died at the same facility in a year’s time.
Stewart was arrested in May of this year for violating probation on a shoplifting charge. In June, authorities transferred him to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Within a month, something changed. Jail officials won’t talk about the situation due to pending litigation, but other inmates knew something was wrong with Stewart. According to Brent Lashley, an inmate in a nearby cell, Stewart was unable to eat the solid foods provided because he had no teeth and lost sixteen pounds during his incarceration. When Lashley gave Stewart a snack bar, he vomited the bar up along with blood.
Stewart knew he was ill. There was a mass of some sort on his neck, and the inability to keep down food or water made him fill out grievance form after grievance form seeking medical treatment. Each was returned with the same response: “Wait on your appointment.” The last one on August 4, scrawled in broken English, reveals the depths of Stewart’s desperation and urgent need for medical care.
I have black[ed] out two times in less than 24 hours. I keep asking to go to the emergency room. I don’t know what cause[s] the blackouts. I know my tolerance are low plus I haven’t had a mean that I [can] eat. I can’t hold down water or food…I have written with the same reply, [“Wait] on your (me) [“apppointment.”]
The same day, jail medical staff responded with their final reply. Signed off by a Sergeant Whitehead, a member of the jail’s medical staff responded that day with the following statement, reeking of complete indifference to Stewart’s needs.
“Mr. Stewart, not only have you been refusing your seizure medication, but … you were witnessed walking to the top tier and sitting on walkway. You’ve also been further evaluated off site by specialists. In addition you will receive a follow-up by the provider“…Determined not to be an emergency – Reason and action taken.” (Emphasis added.)
The “non emergency” leading to the filing of Stewart’s final grievance form was an incident where he suffered a fainting spell trying to climb the stairs to his cell block. He hit his head on the ground. A nurse told him to get in line for a pain pill while guards and medical staff stepped over him. Lashley and another inmate helped Stewart to his cell, where he vomited blood again and filled out that final grievance form. Two days later Stewart was dead, thanks to the indifference of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s medical staff. That indifference could be the jail’s undoing, since “deliberate indifference” to a prisoner’s medical needs violates their constitutional right according to numerous court opinions.
Our nation’s highest court held in 1976 a prison’s “deliberate indifference” to the medical needs of a prisoner violated the Eighth Amendment’s provision as an “unnecessary and wanton inflection of pain.” In 1983, the Court extended this standard to pretrial detainees as part of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process clause. The Fourth Circuit, of which Virginia is a part, followed suit in several other opinions. If Stewart’s treatment at the hands of Hampton Roads Regional Jail medical staff is seen as “deliberate indifference” to his medical needs, it doesn’t bode well for the jail or their medical contractor. If the Department of Justice intervenes, and finds a “pattern or practice” of “deliberate indifference” at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, the consequences could be disastrous for the jail and its staff.
That “pattern or practice” of “deliberate indifference” has a good chance of rearing its head under investigation since last year Jamycheael Mitchell, a 24-year-old man, died of starvation at Hampton Roads Regional Jail last year. Arrested and incarcerated for stealing approximately $5 in snacks, a judge found Mitchell incompetent to stand trial and ordered him transferred to a mental institution. Allegedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Mitchell’s family believes he didn’t take his medication while incarcerated, didn’t eat, and therefore died from lack of proper medical attention. That view is shared by attorney Mark Krudys, who now represents both Mitchell’s and Stewart’s families in litigation against the jail.*
“You’ve got nothing coming, inmate” is a refrain common from television shows regarding prison life to words uttered daily by COs working in actual detention centers. It’s used as a sign of toughness, a means to let the inmante know he shouldn’t expect special or preferential treatment. Regardless of one’s personal feelings about our nation’s prison population, they deserve access to medical treatment when needed. Just like they deserve access to drinking water and the right to refrain from being boiled to death. The lawsuits against Hampton Roads Regional Jail won’t bring back Henry Stewart or Jamycheal Mitchell, but they might prevent its staff from treating prisoners like slime.
*Fault Lines contacted Mark Krudys prior to publication. He was not readily available for comment.