E-Alerts & Press Releases

Washington Post on Death in Howard County Jail

Deaths Raise Questions About Howard County Jail

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005; B01

Joseph E. McGee kept begging for a doctor.

The 38-year-old inmate at the Howard County jail had been spitting up blood and complaining of throbbing pains in his chest. Jail officials had promised to hospitalize him, McGee's sister said, but police records show that never happened.

So McGee took a disposable razor and slashed his left wrist in a frantic bid for serious medical attention, police said. Instead, he was given Motrin and returned to his cell Sept. 3. McGee was found dead the next day.

The Howard County jail has been roiled by three deaths this year, an unusually high number for a facility where about 200 inmates are now held and where no one had died in more than six years. The incidents -- including a man who left a suicide note in ketchup alleging he had been denied medication -- have raised questions about the quality of medical care at the jail.

"You should not be at risk of death simply because you're accused of a crime," said Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney for the Prisoner Rights Project of the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. "It seems like these people died because they were given inadequate care."

The county yesterday released a review of two of the deaths, both suicides, and concluded that they could not have been prevented.

"It's unfortunate when suicide happens anywhere," said Victoria Goodman, a county spokeswoman. "But we're confident that procedures and policies that were currently in place at the times of these suicides were adequate."

Goodman said the county would not comment on McGee's death because of anticipated legal action. James E. Crawford Jr., an attorney for the McGee family, said he plans to file a lawsuit seeking about $5 million from the county and state because of inadequate medical treatment.

Six days before his death, McGee, a strapping landscaper from Baltimore, was taken to the Howard County jail after being arrested on a theft charge. But the sheriff's cruiser that transported him was involved in an accident in which he sustained a serious chest injury, according to his sister Annie McGee.

Police records show that he was examined by jail staff members, who did not find any serious injuries. The infirmary provided him with Tylenol and Pepto-Bismol.

But when Annie McGee, 56, went to visit him the afternoon of Sept. 2, she hardly recognized her brother. She said in an interview that his face was gray and that he could barely stand. He kept gurgling blood into a clear plastic cup he held in his hand.

"He told me he felt like he was dying," said Annie McGee, who lived with her brother. She recalled him saying: "I feel like my ribs are punctured or cracked. I ask for medical attention and they say: 'You're fine. We're short on staff.' "

After five minutes, she said, she couldn't stand it anymore.

"I ran to the guards and said he needed to be taken to a hospital immediately," she said. "They told me they were short on staff but they promised me -- promised me -- that they would call an ambulance."

Police records show that he was admitted to the infirmary and given Tylenol for pain but never hospitalized. After he slit his wrist to get medical care, he was placed on suicide watch, police say.

At 9:15 a.m. Sept. 4, a guard noticed McGee lying on his back and complaining that he could not move his legs, police said. The guard called a nurse, but she was performing an electrocardiogram and did not respond until 9:30, when she found him unconscious and not breathing, police said.

McGee finally arrived at a hospital at 10:34, where he was pronounced dead.
The medical examiner's office ruled that he died of acute bronchopneumonia with an enlarged heart and mucus-coated lungs that were two to three times their normal weight.
"Why in the world didn't they take him to a hospital?" his sister sobbed in a recent interview. "I would take a dog to a vet if I thought he was sick.

But they totally neglected him because they were short on staff."

McGee's death was not the first this year to raise questions about medical care at the jail. Dean Cumbie, 33, hanged himself with a bedsheet April 1 while awaiting extradition to Georgia on fraud and DUI charges. His was the first jail death since 1999.

"I cant live with this pain anymoore, medical new I needed med," police said Cumbie wrote in ketchup in a misspelled note left on his cell desk.

Jail officials did not allow Cumbie to take four medications he brought to the detention center because they could not confirm their validity, police said. Authorities also concluded that Cumbie had tried to commit suicide once before by hanging himself from a sprinkler head. The jail staff at the time called the event a "defiance statement."

Then Wilfredo Hernandez, 31, was found Aug. 1 hanging from a shoelace tied to a sheet with his arms slashed. His cellmate, who speaks only rudimentary English, tried to tell a guard that Hernandez had a razor, but the guard might not have understood him, police records show.

The 13-page report released yesterday sheds little light on the two suicides but does provide some recommendations for suicide prevention policy, including removing brass handles from some bunk beds to protect inmates, installing more cameras to monitor cells and removing sprinkler heads.

The review, which was conducted by jail officials, also notes that registered nurses provide medical coverage 24 hours a day, although a doctor is required to be available only six hours a week.

Melanie C. Pereira, the jail's director, said: "We can never stop everybody from committing suicide if they are really intent. They can do it in a myriad of ways, including taking toilet paper and choking it down their throat."

County Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-West County) said it is difficult to care for inmates because many of them are drug addicts who "bring those medical problems on themselves."

"We can't treat them like you do every individual who's brought into a hospital," he said.
But Annie McGee said her brother deserved better treatment than he received.

"Howard County killed my brother by denying him medical attention," she said as her eyes brimmed with tears. "They need to clean up this detention center before this happens again."

C 2005 The Washington Post Company

« Back