Family of Deceased Inmate Files Suit Against Schwarzenegger, Department of Corrections
A $60 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed last week by the family of a Solano State Prison inmate who died after a wisdom tooth extraction names Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and two state Department of Corrections officials as defendants, the Sacramento Bee reports. Department Director Jeanne Woodford and Solano prison warden Thomas Carey are the other named defendants (Furillo, Sacramento Bee, 10/5).
Anthony Shumake, age 41, was serving a 12-year sentence for corporal injury to a spouse, stalking and a drug offense. He died of heart failure June 28, six days after a wisdom tooth extraction caused an infection and swelling in his neck that made it difficult to breathe, according to a coroner's report. On the day Shumake died, an ambulance called to the prison arrived about 90 minutes later and was sent to a hospital more than 75 miles away. A report by the ambulance company that transported Shumake said he complained that he hadn't eaten in several days (Martin, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/5).
Family members of Shumake are seeking $10 million in general damages and $50 million in punitive damages (Sacramento Bee, 10/5).
State Assembly member Loni Hancock (D-El Cerrito) and Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) have launched internal probes seeking information about the circumstances of Shumake's death.
Shumake's death comes after warnings by the Office of the Inspector General, which concluded in a January 2003 report that Solano is facing a shortage of dental space and that the prison's dental staffing levels and failure to provide routine check-ups "may expose the state to possible legal action" (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/5).
Last month, a U.S. District judge approved an agreement between state officials and a law firm representing prison inmates that requires physicians working in each of the state's prison facilities by 2006 to complete a series of written and oral examinations to assess their medical knowledge. The order enforced a legal settlement in which the state promised to improve health care for prison inmates.
The agreement also calls for the department to develop a plan to assess and train nurses and a proposal to improve doctor and nurse recruiting.
Under the order, department officials must compile a list of inmates with high-risk medical conditions and ensure that they receive care from qualified physicians. Independent doctors approved by the courts will treat the high-risk patients until the prison system hires enough doctors to provide treatment.
The state's prison system has been involved in seven government hearings in 18 months (California Healthline, 9/30).
In addition to the Shumake lawsuit, the department could face additional lawsuits related to inmate dental care. Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office -- a legal firm that has filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of inmates over mental health and medical services -- said the firm expects to file a class-action lawsuit related to dentistry later this year.
Mary Neade, a spokesperson for the prison, on Monday said that the facility had only two dental chairs for more than 6,000 inmates at the time of Shumake's death because of a construction project. She added that arranging a follow-up appointment at the prison after dental surgery might have been difficult. The prison normally has six chairs for inmate dental services (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/5).
Hancock said, "It's a sad comment when a family has to go to court or an elected official can't get answers" (Fischer, Contra Costa Times, 10/5).
Mark Ravis, an attorney in the case, said that Schwarzenegger is "ultimately responsible for what's going on in the (Department of Corrections). This has been called to his attention and he has had an opportunity to implement some changes." Ravis added, "This is a call for reform, in addition to compensating the families for their losses. This is a new civil rights movement, if you will, because medical care for an inmate is a constitutional right."
Schwarzenegger's office referred comment on the case to Youth and Adult Correctional Agency spokesperson J.P. Tremblay. Tremblay said the Schwarzenegger administration is fully committed to reforming state prisons. Tremblay said, "We are making progress. It's taken several years for these problems to develop. It's not something we're going to fix in six weeks" (Sacramento Bee, 10/5).
The Department of Corrections is aware of its "problems in health care," and several efforts to improve medical services are underway, spokesperson Margot Bach said (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/5). She added, "We have to balance security issues versus ease of access for inmates. Any time this happens it is a tragedy. Nobody comes to prison to die. They come to serve their time and move on" (Contra Costa Times, 10/5).
In related news, the Riverside Press-Enterprise on Sunday examined how a rule scheduled to take effect next year that aims to reduce prison health care costs by banning tobacco products in the facilities could "ope[n] the state to other problems" (Austin, Riverside Press-Enterprise, 10/3).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.