Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 47 / 23 November 2017
 

Suit settled for $1.5M in gay inmate's death

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s.hemmelgarn@ebar.com

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The mother of a 27-year-old gay man who died in a Sacramento jail recently settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the county for $1.45 million.

William Sams, whom a jail document had once pegged as "flamboyant," died from a perforated duodenal peptic ulcer in June 2006, days after being arrested for possession of cocaine, according to court documents on behalf of the plaintiff.

Since Sams's death, staffing levels and training have been improved, according to a jail health official.

The county paid the amount to Marilee Ann Hewitt, Sams's mother, earlier this month.

According to the court documents, on June 7, 2006, Sacramento police arrested Sams for possessing "a small amount" of cocaine. An ambulance brought him to the University of California, Davis Medical Center because he had passed out and had been "difficult to arouse."

Before he received treatment at the medical center, though, Sams was taken to Sacramento County Main Jail, according to court documents. The sheriff's department noted that he was under the influence of "cocaine/meth." Sams was found medically fit to be admitted to the jail.

Sams denied having any psychiatric or other medical problems, but within days, he was dying a slow, painful death.

On June 13, 2006, Sams told nursing staff that he was constipated and was having stomach problems – "like some burning coming up my throat," he said. He was assessed as having gastro esophageal reflux disease, and a nurse called for him to get Milk of Magnesia and increase his fluid intake.

Sams came back at about 3:45 p.m. the next day and said the treatment wasn't working. He was referred to Dr. Tamara Robinson, who found Sams to be in "severe abdominal pain."

Sams told Robinson that he needed to go to the hospital, and the doctor believed his accounts of severe pain and vomiting, but on his chart she noted that Sams was "histrionic" and "hyperventilating," and sweating profusely.

Robinson held Sams for observation and prescribed Maalox and other medications. Sams eventually reported that wasn't working, either, and that he'd been vomiting. The court documents say he'd been sitting on the bed crying.

Instead of pursuing urgent testing, Robinson prescribed medications for anxiety and ordered some non-urgent tests related to Sams's abdominal condition. She sent him back to the general population with a referral for a "psyche consult."

Soon after, Sams complained that he was vomiting blood and he requested urgent medical care, but medical staff refused to see Sams until the next morning.

Around midnight, June 15, medical staff agreed to see Sams, who had been "begging for medical attention." His skin was cold, and he was perspiring at the top of his head.

Sams also had a high respiratory rate and a low body temperature, which were among the indicators that Sams was in shock and needed emergency medical care, according to the court documents.

Dr. William G. Douglas, the night shift telephone on-call doctor, who was at home, twice told a nurse who had called him to admit Sams into the jail's medical unit, and said that Sams didn't need to go to the hospital.

A physician wasn't scheduled to arrive at the jail until 7 a.m.

By 4:05 a.m., Sams, who by then had reported having seizures, was "crunched over and holding his mid-section," according to the documents.

Approximately 20 minutes later, deputies realized that Sams didn't appear to be breathing. A nurse initiated CPR, and an ambulance came, but at about 4:39 a.m., Sams was pronounced dead.

Hewitt, Sams's mother, declined a request for an interview through attorney Peter C. Grenier.

"Obviously, you can never put a price on human life," Grenier said. "Perhaps what was most satisfying was the implicit acknowledgment of wrongdoing in the form of an agreement to pay such an amount."

'Inappropriate' notation

Through a spokesman, Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, a defendant in the suit, referred questions about the case to Van Longyear.

The documents filed on Hewitt's behalf say that Sams had been classified at the jail as an "Overbearing/flamboyant homosexual."

But Longyear, the attorney who represented the county and most of the other defendants in the case, said that Sams wasn't classified as overbearing or flamboyant, and he wasn't sure if those were the exact words used. He said that Sams was classified as someone who required protective custody, and the offensive terms were used in a notation.

The words were "inappropriate" and not a description that the jail condones, said Longyear.

He said that notation had been made previously at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, another county facility, not at the main jail. He said the notation might potentially have been made because of Sams's "mannerisms."

He said that Sams had been incarcerated "numerous times" before, primarily for drug-related offenses. Records from the Superior Court in Sacramento indicate Sams had previously been charged with offenses related to possession of drug paraphernalia and theft, among other charges – many of which were dismissed.

Longyear said a "relatively small" percentage of prisoners are classified for protective custody. Besides being gay, other reasons prisoners might be placed in protective custody are if they're a police officer or a well-known public figure.

He said Sams's orientation potentially put him at risk for attack by other inmates.

Asked if the jail had had problems with gays being attacked before, Longyear said they had not.

Classification staff are trained to make notations that would be helpful in protecting staff and the prisoners, said Longyear.

Improvements

AnnMarie Boylan, chief of correctional health services, is responsible for managing the delivery of medical and mental health services to county jail inmates. Boylan, who's been in the job since January 2007 – months after Sams's death – acknowledged "there were things that didn't happen" appropriately in the Sams case.

Douglas, who was eventually terminated, and Robinson, whom Boylan said left the jail job voluntarily, were both among the defendants in the suit, but could not be reached for comment.

Boylan said her department has conducted "a thorough investigation" to determine what led to Sams's death and made changes related to assessment, nurse training, and triage procedures, better staffing levels, and they've decreased medical-based grievances.

However, she said the changes could be jeopardized by financial problems.

Correctional Health Services requested about $26 million in funding from the county, but they received approximately $17 million, according to Zeke Holst, public information officer for Sacramento County. Holst noted cuts have been made to all social services in the county.






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