on January 17, 2013 - 12:33 AM
, updated January 17, 2013 at 1:21 AM
Tommie Lee Jones Jr. suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure, emphysema, gout and claustrophobia.
But as an inmate at the Niagara County Jail, he was denied adequate medical treatment and died after going into cardiac arrest in his jail cell late last month, according to his loved ones and more than two dozen county inmates who wrote a letter to The Buffalo News about what they observed.
“All you had to do was let him see the doctor and send him to the hospital where he needed to be,” said Genesser Moore, Jones’ longtime domestic partner. “If he would have been at home, he would have gone to the hospital.”
Sheriff James R. Voutour adamantly denied the accusation and said Jones received excellent medical care, but the state is investigating.
Voutour said jail medical logs prove the 51-year-old Niagara Falls resident was under near-constant care by the jail’s medical staff.
“I can tell you he received intensive medical care at the jail, and I am confident that when the Commission of Correction finishes its investigation, it will provide a reasonable explanation,” Voutour said of why Jones died Dec. 29.
Voutour said that because medical information is covered by federal privacy laws, his hands are tied from being able to make a public case that Jones indeed received intensive medical care.
“Our staff risks their lives every day to take care of these individuals, and we keep getting beat up by the media,” Voutour said, adding that claims made by inmates have turned out to be inaccurate or outright attempts to besmirch the reputation of the institution.
The state correction commission confirmed it is investigating Jones’ death, as well as the death of a second inmate, Daniel Pantera, 46, of North Tonawanda, who died four days earlier in the jail’s medical unit.
The News received a letter from inmates complaining that the jail’s correctional and medical staff failed to address Jones’ medical needs. The six-page letter, signed by more than 30 fellow inmates, described Jones as a man who was slowly dying in front of them.
“He literally begged the staff, both correctional and medical, to take him to the hospital,” they wrote. “On Friday, Dec. 28, his condition has visibly worsened, but jail staff acted as if they did not see the dying man. I told Tommie to call his relatives to see if they could make some phone calls to the jail so they could finally take him to the hospital. Jones told me that they told him if he calls his family that they would put him in the medical unit or isolation.”
The next day, the letter states, Jones’ condition had further deteriorated.
“When he walked up to get his [breakfast] tray, he could barely stand on his own, and his body was shaking so bad that the officer asked him if he was OK. Jones could not and did not respond to this officer. Instead of further investigation, the officer told him to ‘go lay down.’ He went and lay back down at or around 8:30 to 9 a.m., and staff never checked his condition.
“When lunch arrived around 11:30 a.m., a couple inmates were trying to wake him up, but he was unresponsive, and they began kicking and banging on his door, and he was not moving or breathing.”
After the correctional officer was notified, the medical staff tried to revive Jones. An ambulance crew arrived at 12:25 p.m., the inmates wrote. Jones, according to the Sheriff’s Office, was transported to Eastern Niagara Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:50 p.m.
Jones was jailed earlier in December, after he was paroled from state prison on a robbery conviction. He was back behind bars because he violated terms of his parole by not meeting his parole officer, his girlfriend said.
Voutour would not allow a reporter to meet with inmates who wrote the letter, explaining they do not know what was medically wrong with Jones and have no official insight into what happened.
Moore said she arrived at the jail Dec. 29 just in time to learn Jones was being taken to the hospital. She said she was not shocked, because of his failing health.
On four past occasions, she said, she called supervisors at the jail to inform them that Jones was having difficulty breathing or experiencing chest pains.
After one of those calls, she said, Jones was taken to the hospital and received treatment for his breathing before being returned to the jail. On other occasions, she said, the jail staff provided him with an inhaler and oxygen machine, but the measures did not go far enough.
Before his incarceration, she said, it was not uncommon for Jones to end up in the hospital if his breathing medications, administered through a nebulizer, failed to help him.
“Before he went to jail in December, he was at Mount St. Mary Hospital for nine days, and they had a tube in his lungs to help him breathe,” Moore said, adding that his problems were compounded by a weak heart.
“He had heart surgery in 2005 and had a defibrillator implanted in his chest,” she said. Jones, she added, refused to take medications provided by the jail’s medical staff.
“He kept asking what kinds of medicine they were giving him, and they wouldn’t tell him what they were. The nurse said either you take them or not. So he refused,” Moore said.
The deaths of Jones and Pantera occurred at a transitional time. A Florida company, Armor Correctional Health Services, took over as the jail’s health care provider a few weeks before their deaths. When the Niagara County Legislature awarded the physician-owned company the contract in October, it was estimated that Armor would save the jail’s medical budget some $800,000 annually in hospital, staffing and pharmaceutical costs.
Voutour defended the move, saying the jail medical staff has increased from seven to 11 full-time nurses.
“The doctor has more hours at the jail, and Armor has added two administrators to oversee all the medical care,” the sheriff added.
In a normal year, Voutour said, there is one in-custody death, usually the result of natural causes. Last year, however, was unusual, he said. Besides the two December deaths, an inmate committed suicide Jan. 23 by leaping from a second-floor walkway, landing headfirst on a concrete floor.
The family of that inmate, Harold G. Case, 50, of Hartland, last week filed a lawsuit against the jail for failing to prevent his death. Case, jailed after his conviction for attempted rape, had made it known that he was suicidal, according to his family.
If Moore has her way, the jail may soon face another lawsuit. She said she has met with attorney Thomas Mercure, of the Buffalo law firm of Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria, because she believes Jones would still be alive if his repeated requests for adequate medical attention had been met.
Voutour pointed out that individuals who end up in jail often arrive in poor health.
“You have to understand that the people we are dealing with are from a sick population that does not take care of itself when they are outside of jail,” the sheriff said. “When they come in, they get the best health plan of anybody.”