Autopsy contradicts inmates' account
By Andria Simmons
LAWRENCEVILLE - Information in the medical files of a leukemia patient who died at the Gwinnett County Detention Center in October conflicts with her cellmates' allegations that the woman was repeatedly denied hospitalization, according to autopsy records released Friday.
The autopsy conducted by the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office stated 43-year-old Harriett Washington's cancer was in remission prior to her being jailed in June. However, she died of leukemia just five months later.
The Gwinnett County Detention Center has no record of Washington receiving any cancer treatments during her stay there, according to the autopsy. The only documented medical complaint in her file was on Oct. 16, when she complained of knee pain.
Washington died before dawn on the following day.
"(Washington's) roommates found her to be experiencing seizure-like activity before losing consciousness," the autopsy said. "Responding staff members found her lying supine on the floor with her head resting on a pillow that had been placed there by her roommates. Staff members immediately called 911 and transported her to the clinic."
Washington was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center in full cardiac arrest, where she was pronounced dead.
The autopsy provided the only available hint of what information may be contained within Washington's medical files.
Both the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department and Prison Health Services, the contracted medical provider for the jail, have refused to release her medical records due to privacy laws. Susan Morgenstern, spokeswoman for PHS, also declined to talk about Washington's case because of patient confidentiality restrictions.
Kimberly Holmes and Carla Dotson claim Washington was scheduled to see a specialist for cancer treatment two weeks before she died, but she was never taken. The inmates also claim Washington begged repeatedly to be hospitalized because she realized that she was relapsing and getting sicker.
Holmes and Dotson said they wrote down everything that happened leading up to Washington's death. Holmes said Washington was "extremely sick" on Oct. 16 and "getting worse as the day progressed." The medical staff was called and a nurse was consulted, both of whom allegedly said to fill out a request to see a doctor and turn it in.
The inmates said Washington was transported to the jail's medical unit twice, but each time she was returned to the cell within an hour, her condition not improved.
Washington was vomiting, sweating, screaming in pain and delusional, the inmates said.
"This became extremely alarming to me and I asked for medical to be called," Holmes wrote in a letter to the Gwinnett Daily Post. "The officer came back and informed Carla that medical had stated that vomiting was good for her."
The staff also told the cellmates that Washington would have to wait to be seen by the jail doctor because there was no need for her to go to the hospital, the women claim.
"When someone dies in your arms and nobody cared, I get emotional," said Holmes, who was overcome with tears during a jailhouse interview last week.
"We're the only people she counted on that night. They kept telling us there was nothing they could do."
Several lawsuits pending against PHS
Prison Health Services, the largest private provider of its kind in the nation, has faced two lawsuits in Gwinnett and criticism from local officials in other states in recent months.
Lawyers for Frederick Jerome Williams, a Lawrenceville deacon and father of four, filed a lawsuit in Gwinnett County State Court on Thursday against Prison Health Services, Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway, two police officers, four sheriff's deputies and Taser International, a company which manufacturers stun guns. That lawsuits claims that a paramedic employed by PHS responded slowly and did not seem very concerned when Williams lost consciousness.
Williams passed out shortly after struggling with deputies and being stunned several times with a Taser.
When the paramedic did begin CPR, it was "so flawed and out of compliance with the (American Heart Association) standards" that it was ineffective, according to an affidavit accompanying the lawsuit. The affidavit was written by Dr. Joe Goldenson, Medical Director of Jail Health Services in San Francisco, after reviewing medical records and videotape of the incident.
Another lawsuit filed in September in the U.S. District Court's Northern District in Atlanta also took aim at the company. The lawsuit claims medical personnel at the Gwinnett County Detention Center should not have forced inmate Ray Charles Austin to receive an injection of an anti-psychotic drug.
Lawyers for Austin's family maintain that a doctor's note in Austin's medical file warned against using needles. Austin, a diagnosed schizophrenic, grew combative when a nurse tried to inject him with a psychotropic drug following an outburst at the jail. He also died after getting into a fight with deputies and being shocked with a Taser.
Susan Morgenstern, a spokeswoman for PHS, said the company has a much better track record than most state- or county-run prison and jail health care.
"A disproportionately high number of lawsuits originate in prisons and jails," Morgenstern said.
"As far as we can tell, our rate of being sued is about half that of prisons and jails run by governments. More than half of the lawsuits are dismissed before they go to trial. And in the majority of the ones that do go to trial, we get decisions in favor of Prison Health Services."
Prison Health Services has been faulted for inmate deaths or poorly managed health care in other jurisdictions, prompting local officials in Richmond County, S.C., and in Nashville, Tenn., to discontinue their contracts with the company.