To Die Inside

Nathan Jones's sentence was not supposed to be a death sentence.

Later that morning, a physician's assistant examined Jones and ordered that he be taken to the hospital. A medical staffer argued that his case wasn't serious enough to require an ambulance, Trimble says; others disagreed. Finally, Jones was taken to the emergency room at St. Thomas More, where he died. "I do believe his death could have been prevented," Trimble says.

Dorothy Twellman, the Fremont County coroner, takes issue with Trimble's assertion. An emergency-room physician who was at St. Thomas More when Jones was brought in, Twellman says the advanced state of his cirrhosis was more than sufficient to account for his death. Twellman has probably scrutinized more inmate deaths than any other coroner in the state, and she says the natural deaths are largely the result of end-stage chronic diseases.

"We're seeing more inmates with a variety of health problems," she says. "I can't think of any offhand where I felt like they would have survived if they hadn't been in prison."

Alvin Jones wonders whether his brother's death in prison could have been avoided.
Brett Amole
Alvin Jones wonders whether his brother's death in prison could have been avoided.

But according to Trimble, the care inmates receive can be substandard, depending on which staffers are on duty that day. Most of her colleagues are "well-informed and very conscientious," she says, but some regard their patients as less than human. "If something happens to one of them, their attitude is, 'Oh well, he's just an inmate.' And that attitude is pretty much supported by the administration."

Trimble acknowledges that some inmates try to take advantage of staffers, faking illnesses in an effort to obtain drugs. "But the fact is, if they had an inmate they didn't like, for whatever reason, they'd just let him lay," she says. "An inmate who complains of chest pain -- I don't care if he's faking or not. My job is to check his symptoms. Chest pain is something you don't mess with. It could be indigestion or it could be a heart attack."

Trimble left the DOC's employ shortly after Jones's death -- in part because of the "us versus them" mentality of some of the medical personnel. "I've been a nurse for 28 years, and I don't like cruelty in any form," she says. "It wasn't my place to judge these inmates. Frankly, I don't think the taxpayers are getting what they're paying for in there."

Prison officials decline to discuss the details of inmates' deaths, citing the confidentiality of medical records. After several weeks of letters, faxes and phone calls, Al Jones finally obtained his brother's records last week. But the documents alone can't tell him if his brother's death was unavoidable, a result of inadequate treatment -- or something that was foretold years ago, the night he did or didn't point a gun that was or wasn't real at a man who did or didn't identify himself as a police officer.

"His sentence was not supposed to be a death sentence," Jones says. "But a cop shooting never ends."

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