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Lawsuits accuse Douglas County Jail of denying medical treatment to inmates

Lawsuits accuse Douglas County Jail of denying medical treatment to inmates

The just-released inmate was so emaciated, so out of breath, that he couldn’t make it to his cousin’s front door after taking a cab there following his release from the Douglas County Jail in downtown Omaha.

Roger Cook, 55, collapsed on the front lawn and was taken by ambulance to Bergan Mercy Medical Center. There, Cook found out what had been afflicting him for the six months he had complained to his jailers: advanced lung cancer.

Ten days later, he was dead.

Now, his attorneys, Thomas White and cousin Benjamin White of Omaha, have filed negligence and malpractice claims against Douglas County and the jail’s Tennessee-based medical provider. Those claims outline the plight of Cook and 12 other inmates who, the Whites contend, were denied proper treatment for their maladies.

Cook, who lost 64 pounds during his time in jail, had the most serious case. But other inmates have been denied treatment for everything from chlamydia to a stroke to a broken hip suffered during a jail fight, the Whites said.

The lawsuits take aim at Correct Care Solutions, a Nashville company that has come under scrutiny for deaths and alleged poor treatment of inmates nationally. Correct Care — which also contracts with jails in Lancaster County, Sarpy County and Dodge County, among others in the state — faces myriad lawsuits nationally, including suits over six deaths in Colorado jails and others in Washington state.

Correct Care gets $5.7 million a year from Douglas County. The Whites argue the company is motivated to give minimal medical care.

“The contract between Douglas County and CCS creates perverse incentives,” the lawsuits say. “CCS (Correct Care) makes more money under the contract when they refuse to provide inmates with necessary medical care.”

In its answer to one of the Whites’ lawsuits, an attorney for Correct Care said each case should be evaluated on treatment decisions, not on attorneys’ theories.

Correct Care bristled at the Whites’ suggestion that individual cases were motivated by profit.

“Such allegations . . . endeavor to incite scandal,” wrote Renee Eveland, an attorney based in Lincoln.

A spokeswoman for Correct Care did not return messages seeking further comment.

Mark Foxall, director of the Douglas County Jail, said he could not comment on the cases detailed in the lawsuits.

However, Foxall gave indications that the Douglas County Board is weighing whether to replace Correct Care as the jail’s medical provider. After the latest contract expired in February, the county opted to give the company just a seven-month extension, through September, as the county “considers options,” Foxall said.

Tom White said last week that some of the recent cases are reminiscent of an unrelated scandal: the disregard that led to the death of inmate Alexander Simoens in September 2007. Simoens died at the former Omaha City Jail after begging for treatment of stomach pain that turned out to be a bleeding ulcer. His case led to indictments and led the city to shut down the jail and settle with Simoens’ family for $1 million.

Nine of the current cases are at the claim stage and will be filed as lawsuits, the Whites said, if the Douglas County Board denies paying the claims.

The allegations spelled out in each of the four lawsuits filed so far:

» Edward Leza, 64, had been in the Douglas County Jail awaiting federal trial on meth distribution charges. He has hepatitis C, a condition caused by a virus that attacks the liver. He also has Bell’s palsy, a medical condition causing one side of a person’s face to droop. In June 2017, Leza began to request medical treatment, complaining that he was suffering from chest pains, was confused, couldn’t remember things and couldn’t eat or sleep because of the paralysis in the right side of his face.

Correct Care “refused to test for stroke or Bell’s palsy” and refused to give Leza steroid shots to treat his Bell’s palsy because, he alleges, he was told “it was not in the budget.” After being sent to a Wisconsin jail later in 2017, Leza “was promptly diagnosed with a stroke.” A doctor there determined that Leza suffered the stroke in mid-June of 2017 but went without diagnosis or treatment for months. Leza “suffered from severe chest pain for two months following his stroke ... (and) was unable to eat or sleep properly for three months following his stroke.”

» Tevin White, 26, had been in jail awaiting trial on charges of terroristic threats, accused of sending threatening messages to the mother of his child. On April 5, 2017, White suffered a broken bone “in or near the hip” during an altercation at the jail. He was immediately taken to the medical unit to be seen by Correct Care staff. However, White alleges, Correct Care employees told him “the physician would not see him unless ‘there was blood or a bone was sticking out.’ ”

White, unable to stand or walk, struggled in the jail from April 5 to April 24, 2017. Unable to get up to go to the bathroom, he soiled himself . He got around by rolling in an office chair. At one point, a jailer brought him a cane for help.

On April 26, 2017, three weeks after the fight, White’s hip was X-rayed and found to be fractured. On May 15, 2017, he underwent surgery to repair his hip. Doctors are telling him that, because of his young age, he likely will need as many as three hip replacement surgeries over “the remainder of his life.”

» Duoth Deng, 23, had contracted chlamydia shortly before being arrested and placed in jail in June 2016 in connection with a series of burglaries. Upon arrival at the jail, he told Correct Care officials that he was suffering pain while going to the bathroom and that he thought he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease right before incarceration. Correct Care employees told him to “drink more water,” something he says compounded the problem by forcing him to use the restroom more often. A Correct Care employee told Deng he “should use a condom next time,” according to Deng.

Six months later, Deng still had received no treatment. He then was sentenced to a year in prison and sent to a Nebraska prison diagnostic center. Medical officials there immediately discovered he had chlamydia and began treating it.

“For six months, he was peeing fire,” Tom White said.

» And then there was Cook. Jailed for violating a protection order, Cook began to suffer from respiratory distress, severe chest pain and extreme weight loss. When he was admitted in October 2016, Cook, who stood 6 feet tall, weighed 189 pounds. Six months later, he weighed 125 pounds.

“This weight loss of 64 pounds in a short period of time provided an obvious sign of (Cook’s) serious illness,” the lawsuit said. Other signs: persistent coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue. When he was discharged from jail, he was “so short of breath that he could not walk or speak above a whisper.” Cook “repeatedly requested treatment for his symptoms and was repeatedly denied,” the lawsuit says.

White said some jail officials are too quick to assume that inmates are faking illness or injury.

“You can’t fake an X-ray,” White said. “And it would have been pretty obvious, even to a layperson, that Mr. Cook was very ill. He easily could have died in their custody.”

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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