Poet’s Death Draws Attention to Inmate Medical Care
The wife of a little known Beat-era poet who died in custody less than three weeks into his term has filed lawsuits that could affect the way ailing prisoners are treated in Los Angeles County jails.
John Thomas, 71, died after spending part of his last night gasping for air on the floor of his cell. Philomene Long, his wife, is alleging that Thomas suffered cruel and unusual punishment during his confinement.
Two days after his arrival, Thomas was admitted to the correctional treatment center at Twin Towers Jail. Nurses recorded Thomas’ symptoms, including swollen legs, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, enlarged and hardened abdomen, brown urine, and crackling lungs.
Thomas refused an offer of oxygen made by a nurse. According to court documents, doctors rarely visited the sick patient.
Medical staff found him on the floor on the evening of March 28th, 2002. After three unsuccessful attempts to lift him back into his bed, a doctor ordered Thomas be moved to a thin mattress pad.
The doctor, however, issued the order sight unseen. From his new location, Thomas could not reach a call button.
Thomas was transferred to a hospital shortly after midnight but died the next afternoon.
Long is suing the county for wrongful death and is seeking unspecified damages resulting from loss of companionship.
The county initially dismissed her claim, citing that the government cannot be held accountable for the actions of doctors and nurses. An appellate court judge, however, overturned the initial decision and sided with Long.
According to Justice Claudia Wilken, “a county’s lack of affirmative policies or procedures to guide employees can amount to deliberate indifference” – a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Long has also filed medical malpractice claims against two jail doctors, alleging that insufficient policies and inadequate medical staff contributed to her husband’s death.
ACLU attorney Ben Wizner said that Thomas’ treatment was not atypical. Approximately 80 percent of inmate complaints deal with access to medical care and medication, according to Jody Kent, the coordinator of the Southern California ACLU’s Jails Project.
“This case should send a signal to the county: If they don’t invest in better medical care up front, they’re going to be paying more as a result of jury settlements,” said Wizner.
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