Jail Death Blamed on Cold Indifference

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) – Texas jailers ignored the screams of a dying inmate suffering from seizures because the county didn’t want to pay overtime to take him to the hospital, his family claims in court.
     The widow, ex-wife and three children of Fernando Longoria sued Cameron County and Sheriff Omar Lucio on Thursday in Federal Court.
     Longoria’s family calls him a devoted, hard-working father who supported his kids and stay at-home wife by cutting hair.
     When Longoria, 29, entered the Cameron County Jail on Jan. 16 to serve 10 days for misdemeanor DUI, his family says, he was “in perfect health” and had never suffered seizures or been treated for mental illness.
     Something went terribly wrong within days.
     “The afternoon of Sunday, January 18th, (3 days into his sentence) fellow detainees began screaming for jailers to help Fernando as he was having a violent seizure,” the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
     A nurse and jailer who took him to the infirmary wrote reports about the incident, and neither said he had suffered a head injury. “However, when the medical examiner performing the autopsy inquired as to the cause of a visible head injury to Fernando’s skull, the jail responded that Fernando hit his head on a bed,” his family says.
     After the seizure, Longoria grew agitated and the guards threw him in el pozo, “the hole,” or solitary confinement. “By Tuesday, January 20th, according to jail records, Fernando was talking to himself, crying, yelling, making strange noises and beating on the walls,” the complaint states.
     He stopped eating, refused medical exams, hit his cell door until his hands bled and became delusional, thinking “2 boys were trying to kill him with knives,” his family says, citing a nurse’s report.
     Longoria clearly needed to go to a hospital but the county has a policy against it, due to the costs of officer overtime, his wife says.
     The policy came out of a Cameron County Commissioners meeting in September 2011, where sheriff’s officers said that guard overtime had increased from $391,000 in 2008 to $495,000 in 2010, partly because the number of hospital inmate visits increased from 88 to 188 in those years, according to a Brownsville Herald story cited in the lawsuit.
     By January this year, when Longoria entered the jail, the policy was so entrenched that even after Longoria spread his feces all over himself and his padded cell, a nurse said he was “fine” and didn’t need to be hospitalized, his family says.
     The jail staff had bigger concerns than Longoria’s health: They were worried about getting sued. Though “he no longer knew what day it was nor did he know where he was,” they made him sign a form indemnifying them against liability, his family claims.
     That night, jail nurses were called to Longoria’s cell and found making strange gurgling noises on the floor; they returned early the next morning to see him incoherently mumbling to himself, his family says.
     “At approximately 6:00 a.m. two jailers see Fernando suffering yet another seizure, which leaves him unconscious on the floor,” the complaint states.
     The medical staff returned and, following jail policy, screamed at him from outside his cell, but he was passed out, his family says.
     The nurses did next to nothing, his family says: “They merely sat him up and put a sandwich on his lap and put an apple in his hand and left him in the padded cell.”
     Minutes later, Longoria’s widow says, a jailer looked in on him and saw that his skin had turned yellow. “Fernando is no longer making any noises. The sandwich is still on his lap and the apple is still in his hand,” the lawsuit states.
     Medical staff tried CPR in vain and finally called an ambulance, which picked up Longoria at 7:05 a.m. and took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
     The jail keeps a camera recording the cell where Longoria was confined to ensure guards are checking on inmates but it stopped working eight hours before he died, his family says, citing jail records.
     Not only is the overtime policy endangering inmates, the family claims, the jail illegally delegates doctor’s duties to licensed vocational nurses.
     The family wants $10 million in punitive damages for wrongful death, pain and suffering and civil rights violations. They also seek an order prohibiting the county jail from continuing to let unsupervised nurses treat inmates.
     They are represented by Eddie Lucio.
     Cameron County Attorney Bruce Hodge’s secretary said Friday that he hadn’t seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment, though he was emailed a copy, via his secretary, the same day.
     The defendants include Infirmary Supervisor Dean Garza, Lt. Mike Leinart, and John Doe nurses and jailers.

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