Shirletta Chambly has lost two family members in St. Louis jails: First her brother, and then her 21-year-old son.
Maleek Coleman-Chambly died after a seizure in his bed at the St. Louis City Justice Center on Jan. 31, 2017. Family members claim he told them over the phone that jail personnel had refused to give him his epilepsy medication the night before.
“You don’t deserve your medication or treated like a human being because you’re locked up?” his mother said, incredulous. “These are human beings.”
Jails across the country are required to provide medical care to prisoners who are serving a sentence or waiting on a trial. But a growing number of former inmates in jails run by the city of St. Louis claim they were denied their medication while incarcerated. In some cases, families say, inadequate medical care has led to death.
Six prisoners in jails run by the city of St. Louis died in 2016 and the first two months of 2017, according to the city’s records. Another six died last year in the custody of St. Louis County. Medical examiners ruled half of the deaths due to suicide; they attributed the others to drug overdoses or complications of chronic medical issues.
St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass declined to discuss specific cases. But the idea that anyone has been denied medication in his jails is ridiculous, he said.
“Why would I deny them medication? We have it here, we pay for it. If they have some rare medication, we have contracts, we can get it,” Glass said. “There’s no logical reason to deny a person medication.”
The city of St. Louis paid a private contractor, Tennessee-based Corizon Health, $7.6 million to provide health care to jail inmates over the last fiscal year.
A federal lawsuit filed by ArchCity Defenders earlier this month includes allegations that medical care in one city jail, the Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse, is inhumane and violates prisoners’ constitutional rights. Plaintiffs claimed they were denied medication for infections, allergies and an asthma inhaler.
“He should not be gone.”
Maleek Coleman-Chambly used to keep his chronic seizures at bay with 1,000 milligrams of Keppra twice a day. The father of two took it like clockwork, said his girlfriend, Jerlysha Boyd.
“If he missed that, he’d go into four or five seizures. He had to have that medicine,” Boyd said.
On Jan. 30, 2017, city police arrested Coleman-Chambly at a probation office. According to St. Louis County police, they asked for him to be booked so they could investigate him on suspicion of promoting child porn. His family thinks he was framed. He never made it to a court hearing.
That night, Boyd said, her boyfriend called from jail and told her that guards at the St. Louis City Justice Center had refused to give him his seizure medication.
“He said they didn’t give it to him. He said I asked the guard, a lot of times, a lot of times for my medicine,” Boyd recalled. “She said I don’t care; you’re going to be shaking like a fish out of water.”
The next morning, Coleman-Chambly was found in his bed, dead after a seizure. The St. Louis medical examiner’s office ruled that he died of natural causes. But his mother can’t shake the feeling that he’d still be alive if he had taken his medicine.
“I knew he would never be the one to be killed in the streets. I know things in life happen, it’s crazy like that. But for him to die?” she said. “He should not be gone.”
A Corizon spokesperson declined to discuss specific cases, citing patient privacy rules.
“Our policies and protocols are based on the standards established by the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare, which was established by the American Medical Association to set the standards recognized by the medical profession and the courts as the benchmark for establishing and measuring a correctional health services program,” wrote Martha Harbin, Corizon’s director of external affairs.
Deaths in lockup: a local look
About 1,000 people die in U.S. jails every year. Half of the deaths are due to illness, according to federal statistics. More than 3,000 die annually in state prisons.
Providing health care in jail is complicated. Bad food and unclean surfaces can make chronic conditions worse. Patients may have incomplete medical histories and no recent doctor to contact. But Coleman-Chambly’s family points out that he had served time before in the St. Louis jail system, and nurses gave him his medication then.
Glass, the Corrections Commissioner for the city of St. Louis, said he cannot comment on specific cases. But he pointed to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which regularly assesses St. Louis jails and certifies them.
“It would not be possible for us to be accredited if we didn’t give the medical treatment that was required for the individual and is standard, best practices,” Glass said. “We would not be accredited.”
In some cases, he said, inmates may disagree with jail doctors over what medical treatments are necessary.
“There has to be a medical determination that the medication is required,” Glass said. “Either by them having a standard prescription when they come to us, or a doctor on site or a doctor at another facility determines that they should be receiving medicines. And then we provide it.”
Corizon Health, the contractor, is no stranger to accusations of malpractice or wrongful death. Hundreds of federal lawsuits have been filed against the Tennessee-based firm in the past year alone.
Few chances to appeal for care
For six weeks in late fall of last year, 62-year-old Mary Lou Walker sat alone in a cell at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution; rapidly losing her grip with reality.
“I could not walk, I could not talk, I could not eat," Walker said. "Every time I’d stand up I’d fall down, I had to crawl to the toilet and a lot of times I couldn’t make it.”
Walker said police arrested her at a Home Depot, as she tried to return stolen power tools. Years after a traffic accident that crushed her pelvis, Walker had gone from a dependency on pain pills to a full-blown heroin addiction. As she went through withdrawals in custody, she said jail personnel refused to give her medication for depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. At one point, she started to hallucinate.
Her sister, Linda Walker of Maryland Heights, said she panicked when she heard Mary Lou’s voice on the phone; but couldn’t get someone to help her.
“I called the nurses, I was concerned. I would tell them that she’s calling me and she’s doesn’t sound right, she’s not sounding like herself and what she’s saying,” Linda Walker said. “I couldn’t get through to them so I tried to call BJC [Health] to see if they could send someone out and check, I called the attorney…”
In November, Mary Lou Walker was so sick she couldn’t finish an interview with her public defender. A few days later, court personnel ordered the jail to transfer her to a hospital.
She has since regained her strength, and is completing a local addiction recovery program. But the trauma of the experience stays with her.
“It’s cruel and unusual, you know,” Walker said. “Not only the way they treat me, the way they treat everybody.”
Even attorneys can be limited in their power to appeal for care on behalf of their clients in jail.
“Courts frequently are reluctant to get involved in the affairs of jails and prisons until inmates and detainees have exhausted their administrative remedies within that facility,” said Mae Quinn, an attorney and director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis.
To Quinn, the continuing allegations and new lawsuit over conditions at the Workhouse are simply the latest in a long string of reports, investigations, and denials.
“At some point, it’s not neglect when folks are choosing — willfully choosing — to ignore the conditions and problems,” Quinn said. “And yet, we continue business as usual.”
Quinn’s firm is suing the city on behalf of the mother of an inmate who died at the Medium Security Institution last year — not for wrongful death, but to obtain more information about how he died. Justin Ratcliff, 43, had a history of medical and mental health issues when he collapsed at the jail last year while lifting weights.
“The circumstances of his death remain very much open to question in our minds,” Quinn said. “We still have not been provided with videos or internal investigations that would really shed greater light.”
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