Monday, October 20, 2014

Are MEs fudging cause of death for Texas prisoners?

If one person per day is dying in custody of state and local law enforcement in Texas, the next obvious question is, "What do those cases look like?"

Nicole Brambila at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal over the weekend (Oct. 18) offered up a portrait of local death in custody cases, basing the story on the list compiled at the Attorney General referenced in this recent Grits post. Well done. This same type story can and should be localized by media in other jurisdictions around the state.

The most dramatic element in the article was the saga of Benjamin McCoin, whose death at the Montford psychiatric unit occurred due to injuries sustained while being restrained by guards. The Tarrant medical examiner called the death an accident; the Lubbock medical examiner labeled it a "homicide." TDCJ spokesflak Jason Clark understatedly told the paper, “It’s certainly a unique situation where you have differing causes of death between two medical examiners.” Indeed, isn't it?

Lubbock County Medical Examiner Sridhar Natarajan has reviewed four death cases from Montford in the past year. "In two of the cases the state said were natural deaths — including McCoin’s — Natarajan has changed the cause, out of concern," reported Brambila. Here are more details on the other case:
The second involved 27-year-old Marsele Dauntri Thompson, who in January was found unresponsive in his cell. Tasha Z. Greenberg, M.D., in Tarrant County reported finding “no evidence of trauma or foul play.”

And yet, the autopsy records evidence of a contusion on Thompson’s forehead in the process of healing, as well as abrasions around his eyes and and additional contusions on his arm and thigh.
Correctional officers were supposed to be conducting 15-minute checks on Thompson, a schizophrenic on water restriction for his personal safety. However, when officers discovered

Thompson sitting nude in his cell with his legs crossed, his body was cold.

Generally, a body is stiff and warm at two hours. It’s stiff and cool between four and six hours.

“When the body was found it was cold, in rigor,” Nataranjan said. “That’s not going to happen within a 15-minute check. It doesn’t match with 15-minute checks.”

Natarajan reported the death undetermined.

“If I’m not able to explain it, I’m not going to give a cause of death,” Nataranjan said.

The Texas Office of Inspector General is also investigating Thompson’s death, Clark said.
Excellent reporting. Nice to see local journalists following up on those death-in-custody reports. There's no way such stories get reported unless somebody's doing the grunt-work to follow up on the details of individual cases in the AG report.

These sorts of regional and local stories are low hanging fruit for reporters elsewhere, it should be emphasized. That AG death-in-custody list represents a huge cache of under-utilized story leads that typically aren't followed by local reporters because they require work and the government hasn't handed them the story on a platter. This article shows what's possible with just a little elbow grease. You never know what you'll find until you look. One hopes others follow suit.


Anonymous said...

The Montford unit is a psychiatric facility. These cases raise questions about how well TDCJ is caring for the mentally disabled. Lack of training for the staff on mental illness and proper restraint are serious issues. Psych techs undergo 1 1/2 years of training, TDCJ officers only undergo 200 hours of training. TDCJ officers currently receive only 2 hours of mental health training, but manage inmates in a prison system which houses over 25,000 severely mentally disabled inmates.

With cutbacks in public mental health funding, Texas has moved a large number of these mentally disabled into the prison system.

Seaamy said...

I just visited my Loved one this past weekend and we got on the topic of what has been some of the worst things he has seen during the nearly 22 years he has been in prison. He told me that some of the most violent assaults he has seen have been at the hands of guards on inmates. If they were properly trained and went through the same stringent training and screening process that other states enforce then they should not need to resort to such violent measures to restrain someone.

Anonymous said...

I've heard horror stories about that mental health prison. We are truly a barbaric state for allowing TDCJ to do what it does. What I want to know is what are they doing with the elderly? Those "natural" deaths each year of older inmates who have Alzheimer's and dementia. Those that can't climb into their bunks, those that defecate on themselves, those that can't find the chow hall anymore, those that are not "diagnosed" because no one cares and there is no where to put them. "Those" are the ones that die with their mattress on the floor, dirty, thin, dehydrated in 100 degree cells. That's how TDCJ handles it's elderly population. Where's the story on that? Yes they died naturally...but with 100% neglect that in the freeworld would be deemed murder for allowing it to happen.

Michael W. Jewell, President, Texas CURE said...

The TDCJ is long overdue for an Independent Oversight Committee comprised of legislators AND members of civil rights groups. State Rep. Alma Allen sponsored HB 877 calling for such a committee last year, but it died in committee. A perfect model for an oversight committee is the Office of the Independent Ombudsman that monitors the Juvenile Justice system, which was established as part of the initial juvenile justice reforms in 2007. The OIO was established for the purpose of investigating, evaluating and securing the rights of children committed to state juvenile justice facilities. Texas is in dire need of an adult version of the OIO that would investigate, evaluate, and secure the rights of Texas prisoners.

Anonymous said...

More bureaucracy is not the solution. TJJD is still a mess, but smaller after most of the state schools were shut down.

TDCJ officers have to secure some of the most dangerous inmates in the world, care for elderly inmates, and now the mentally disabled no one wishes to care for. These officers do this with very little training or pay.

The problems the agency is facing is with funding. Half the buildings are falling apart. The vehicles have hundreds of thousands of miles on them. Inmate healthcare lacks proper staffing and the inmates have gotten really old. Vital emergency communications doesn't work, such as two-way radios to call for assistance when there is a medical emergency or assault in progress. Now some of the officers have no ideal how to use radios or even clearly speak English because TDCJ is using visaed employees.

Pay raises, training, proper hiring practices, and proper equipment are what is going to fix TDCJ, not adding another layer of bureaucrats.

FYI, TDCJ has an Obudsman, Internal Audit, Office of Inspector General, and is inspected by the American Correctional Association. These are mostly worthless bureaucracies. Adding one more is a waste of money.

The Comedian said...

Conditions are not much better at the Skyview or Jester IV psychiatric units run by TDCJ. The so-called psychiatrists typically assume that most inmates are faking mental health problems to get easier living conditions and treat them accordingly. These "psychiatrists", led by a Harris Co. Jail reject named Farley, fail to properly medicate truly mentally ill inmates who then act out and attack staff - COs, therapists, and nurses - while the "doctors" are conveniently sitting in their offices shuffling papers or bitching about how overworked and underpaid they are. These "doctors" are afraid of their own shadows and won't properly medicate patients while other UTMB bigwigs "working" from home are busily typing emails adding more paperwork and needless busywork to the already overworked staff. Heaven forbid that UTMB becomes a research center for Ebola because the entire Houston metro area will likely end up being wiped out.