Soiled by vomit and diarrhea, Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome died alone in a holding cell last year, three months after she was jailed on assault charges stemming from a family fight.
Like most prisoners in Texas county jails, Newsome, 50, was a pre-trial detainee, convicted of nothing. Still, her arrest became a virtual death sentence after jail medical staff failed to get her treatment, even after they knew she faced imminent death.
Newsome's horrific and needless demise on June 15, 2018 – the jail's second death in 14 months – will likely become an expensive lesson for Anderson County taxpayers.
For more than 40 years, federal courts have ruled withholding adequate health care for prisoners, whether in county jails, state prisons, or federal penitentiaries, violates the U.S. Constitution.
Unlike other people, prisoners must rely entirely on their keepers for emergency care. Not providing it, therefore, invites onerous civil suits – additional costs to taxpayers that local and state officials could avoid by operating within the law.
Last week, Newsome's family filed suit in Eastern District Court, asking for $10 million in damages, including punitive damages, for depriving Newsome of life and liberty without due process, a violation of the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
Palestine attorneys Charles Nichols, Dan Scarborough, and Donald Larkin represent Newsome's family. For Anderson County, just contracting for outside counsel to fight this wrongful death suit will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A similar civil suit in 2015 in the death of Waller County prisoner Sandra Bland resulted in a $1.9-million settlement for Bland's family, as well as numerous reforms under the Sandra Bland Act of 2017.
Buttressed by a recently completed investigation by the Texas Rangers, the case for deliberate indifference in Newsome's death appears overwhelming.
For up to five days, jail staff ignored pleas from Newsome for hospital care, as she continued to vomit blood, several former prisoners told the Herald-Press shortly after Newsome died. Newsome suffered from Addison's disease and had a history of mental illness.
On the day Newsome died, Palestine Regional Medical Center alerted jail nurse Timothy Green at 10:39 a.m. that Newsome's blood tests indicated an imminent danger of death, without immediate medical treatment. Nearly seven hours later, Newsome still lay dying in the jail.
After Newsome became unresponsive at about 5 p.m., jail staff attempted to use a defibrillator on Newsome that didn't work, reported a Texas Rangers investigator.
Without hyperbole, the suit against Taylor, Green, Dr. Adam Corley, and county medical provider TAKET Holdings cites a “culture of negligence” and a systemic lack of medical care, including the illegal dispensing of controlled substances to prisoners by jail staff.
TAKET lacked a consistent protocol for dispensing drugs. Newsome was “essentially tortured by improper and over-medication,” the suit states. Her autopsy showed traces of 13 controlled substances, including opioids, that were not prescribed by a doctor.
Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor has fought, tooth and nail, to conceal records, documents, and surveillance video pertaining to Newsome's death – even denying Newsome's son her jail medical records.
A federal wrongful death lawsuit is nothing to cheer. Money won't bring back a loved one; taxpayers foot the bill for the incompetence, indifference, and neglect of their public servants.
Litigation, however, represents one of the few levers of accountability for Texas' 250 county jails, and perhaps their only catalyst for change. Operating without independent oversight, Texas jails report roughly 100 prisoner deaths a year – more than 10 percent of the nation's total.
This year, jail deaths in Texas are headed for a record number.
Anderson County taxpayers can only hope the specter of a multi-million-dollar judgment will finally get the attention of their county commissioners. Renewing TAKET's no-bid, $210,000 annual contract for jail medical services would be, at best, reckless and irresponsible.
With TAKET in control, Anderson County residents can expect more medical and mental health care that defies the law, belies community standards of decency, and threatens taxpayers with costly litigation.
That's a lesson they can ill afford.