Attorney: Jail staff let inmate die needlessly
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 20, 2012
Being sent to a Navajo Nation jail may be harmful to one's health. It may even be fatal.
That's the basis of a class action suit filed recently in the Window Rock District court by Albuquerque attorney Ted Barudin.
The suit claims that staff within the Navajo Nation Department of Corrections as well as tribal police are not trained in how to properly recognize when a detainee needs medical treatment or how to conduct a proper medical screening when a person is brought into jail.
Berudin argues that because of this, some people who have been arrested and taken to jail have died because they did not get proper medical treatment.
"While it's good that the Navajo Nation are getting new jails, it doesn't address the fact that correction officers at the facilities still are not getting the training they need to assure the safety of the people who are incarcerated there," Berudin said.
Named as defendants in the suit, besides the Navajo Nation, are Delores Greyeyes, director of the tribe's Department of Corrections and other various police and detention officers including Larry Etcitty, Max Largo, David Charles, Mike Davis, Carmine Largo and Garrett Thomas.
At the center of the lawsuit is the death of Calvin Tom, who died on Sept. 18, 2010 in the Crownpoint tribal jail.
On the night before, Tom was at his home in Becenti, N.M., where he was living with Evalina Joe and his children. He had returned home about 2 p.m. in an intoxicated condition and had passed out on the couch.
Later that afternoon, he woke up as dinner was being prepared. But before he began eating dinner, he started to vomit and began yelling at family members.
Eventually, Joe called the police.
The first officer to show up was Lamar Martin, who was told by Joe that Tom was in the bathroom. She also explained that Tom would drink hand sanitizer and was vomiting blood and needed to go to the hospital.
Martin then told Tom through the bathroom door that he was going to be charged with public intoxication and he was going to be taken to jail to sleep it off. Martin added that if his condition worsened, he would be taken to the hospital.
Joe questioned his arrest, however, pointing out that Tom "did not hit anyone, did not do any physical damage to the house or their belongings and did not curse at anyone."
She also told Martin that Tom would drink anything, including automotive cleaners to household chemicals.
After trying to get Tom to leave the bathroom voluntarily for several minutes, Martin finally went into the bathroom and saw Tom lose his balance and fall into the bathtub. He helped him to his feet and told him that if he stayed at the residence, he would be charged with endangering the welfare of a minor.
However, if he agreed to leave the residence, he would just be taken to jail for public intoxication. Tom proceeded to vomit again at which point Martin took him outside and put him in his unit.
The suit said Tom continued asking Martin to take him to the hospital.
"Martin told Tom to sleep it off and if he still was not feeling well at the detention center, an ambulance would be requested for him," the lawsuit stated.
What's even more disturbing, Barudin said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, was that to get from Tom's home in Becenti to the jail, the police vehicle had to drive right by the Indian Health Service facility in Crownpoint.
Tom was booked into the Crownpoint jail about 8 p.m. for public intoxication. His booking sheet said at the time he was booked into the facility, there was no alcohol in his blood.
Correction staff are required to fill out a medical screening questionnaire but the lawsuit said in Tom's case, it was not fully filled out and none of the questions dealing with Tom's medical condition were answered.
The suit pointed out that the tribe's correction department is under a consent decree signed more than 20 years ago after DNA filed a lawsuit about the unsafe conditions at the tribal jails. Under the consent decree, correction officials were required to fill out a medical assessment for anyone who is brought in.
"From the time of his booking at 7:42 p.m. until his time of being pronounced dead at 8:30 a.m. on September 18, 2010, Tom never received any medical assessment by the correction facility, despite his lying down for the entire time of his incarceration on a concrete floor on the northwest side of cell 7," the suit states.
Correction officials had noticed a problem with Tom about 5:30 a.m. when they came into the cell to wake him up. When he didn't respond, an ambulance was finally called.
Later when police investigated Tom's death, they went to his home and found two empty containers of "Top Care" hand sanitizer gel in the bathroom. The main ingredient in the product is ethyl alcohol - 63 percent.
"Tom suffered a slow and excruciating death, experienced pain and suffering up to the time of his death and additionally suffered emotional anguish and anxiety prior to the time of his death," the suit stated.
The suit is asking for monetary damages for Tom's family but Barudin said he hopes that the suit results in a change of attitude by tribal officials in the way that correction staff members deal with people who are brought in for incarceration.
If changes aren't made, he said, more people will die needlessly.
This case alone, he said, shows that tribal police officers as well as correction staff do not have the training they need to protect the safety of people put in their care.
Because this is an ongoing problem and Barudin's research indicates that others have had a similar fate, he decided to file this as a class action suit with plans to add more cases as the lawsuit progresses through the system.
He said there are basically two classes of individuals.
Most of them are people who have just been detained, being put in the tribal jails and are then injured or die because of their medical conditions.
The other class refers to those who have been sentenced and are serving their time. These people may be depressed or prone to suicide and are injured or die because the correction personnel did not pick up on these problems and did not take the proper actions to make sure that they were safe.
Navajo tribal officials were contacted and asked to respond about the charges.
Erny Zah, director of communications for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President, said that because a lawsuit was filed, the tribe cannot make a response at this time.
Barudin said he would welcome calls from Navajo families who have lost someone because of a failure by the jail staff to provide them with the proper medical attention.