It will take the thorough investigation promised by the Commission on Correction in order to find out what really happened in the case of Tommie Lee Jones Jr., who died while an inmate at the Niagara County Jail.
Circumstances leading up to Jones’ Dec. 29 death are somewhat murky. Complicating matters is the timing of Jones’ death, along with that of another inmate, around the time in which a private Florida company, Armor Correctional Health Services, took over as the jail’s health care provider.
The private takeover was a cost-savings move for the county and, by the sheriff’s explanation, also an improvement in care, since it resulted in an increase in jail medical staff from seven to 11 full-time nurses, a doctor with more hours and two additional administrators.
But Jones’ family and inmates at the jail insist his death was due to negligence. Sheriff James R. Voutour, while limited by federal privacy laws in how much he can reveal about an inmate’s medical condition, said that Jones was not neglected. The sheriff said that Jones, 51, of Niagara Falls, suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure, emphysema, gout and claustrophobia. Voutour said jail medical logs prove that Jones 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.”
But as reporter Lou Michel wrote, The News received a six-page letter signed by about 30 inmates describing a jail correctional and medical staff that all but ignored Jones’ medical needs. Even when it was obvious his health was failing and after Jones begged for help, they said, things worsened the day of his death: “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.”
The letter goes on to say that Jones “could not and did not respond to this officer,” who the letter claims only told Jones to “go lay down.” The letter details efforts by other inmates to rouse Jones for lunch and then the correctional officer and medical staff that, upon notification, tried to revive Jones. An ambulance crew arrived at 12:25 p.m., the inmates wrote. Jones, according to the Sheriff’s Office, was taken to Eastern Niagara Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:50 p.m.
Two other inmate deaths last year garnered attention. Daniel Pantera, 46, of North Tonawanda, died four days earlier in the jail’s medical unit. Harold G. Case, 50, of Hartland, committed suicide. His family has filed a lawsuit against the jail for failing to prevent his death. Jones’ longtime domestic partner has also met with a lawyer.
For the time being, there are more questions than answers about conditions at the Niagara County Jail. The sheriff and the inmates can’t both be right. But this much is clear: the sheriff and jail officials should cooperate fully with the Commission on Correction’s investigation and make any changes necessary to improve health care for inmates.