Pain Management

Cancer patient Tim Thomason didn't think he could feel any worse. His Denver jailers showed that he could.

To read Alan Prendergast's blog about the Denver jail's heavily redacted policy on pain meds and release procedures, click here.

They let Timothy Thomason go shortly before 8 p.m. on August 26, 2006. He had spent less than 24 hours in the downtown Denver jail, but they were among the worst hours of Thomason's entire life. He moved slowly, dazedly through the exit door, and once he hit the street, he wasn't sure what to do.

Part of him wanted to flee as fast as his wobbly, aching legs could take him — get home, take the pain medication his body was screaming for, climb under the covers and try to forget everything that had happened since his arrest the night before.

Part of him knew that he couldn't forget. And that he would never have a night's peace until he found out a few things.

He stood there for several moments, then went back inside and approached the deputy sitting at the front desk.

"Excuse me," he said. "What's the name of the officer in charge of the second floor?"

Before the man could reply, the officer in question emerged from the elevator. Thomason's heart sank. Was the whole nightmare going to start again? But the officer just stared at him, then brought some papers to the desk. He was close enough that Thomason could read the nameplate on his uniform: CLEVELAND.

Thomason slipped away. He repeated the name to himself during the slow, arduous walk home to his Capitol Hill apartment. Cleveland. Deputy Sheriff Cleveland. The deputy wasn't the only source of his fear and misery — far from it — but for now, the name made for a convenient reference point.

During the previous 24 hours, Thomason's attitude toward law enforcement had been turned upside down. The Denver police officers who'd come to his apartment the night before to arrest him on a charge of cultivation of marijuana — they couldn't have been cooler. He'd told them that his brother had been LAPD and was now a cop in Montana; they weren't going to have any trouble with him. He'd told them he had cancer, terminal Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and was taking massive amounts of Oxycontin for pain and Xanax for anxiety. They'd agreed to bring his pills when they took him in, and told him not to worry.

A female officer had driven him to the downtown jail, also known as the Pre-Arraignment Detention Facility (PADF). She'd promised to call his mom, and she'd told the jail staff that he was sick, that he had prescribed medications, and that they should treat him nicely.

But the PADF has its own way of doing things. Thomason had spent the night in teeth-gritting agony, his pleas for access to his painkillers repeatedly ignored. The next morning, a judge had ordered his release — but then he'd spent several more hours in the jail, apparently on the whim of a single deputy, until he had a seizure, banging his head on the cement floor of his cell. Thomason didn't understand any of it. What had happened was not right. He could have died from being without his meds for so long. How did the system get so screwed up?

Jails aren't known for their compassion. Still, what passes for medical care at the PADF these days can be costly and even fatal. In May, Denver Health Medical Center agreed to pay $4 million to the family of Emily Rae Rice, who died in custody in 2006 after a car crash and DUI arrest. Rice had suffered damage to internal organs that went undetected at Denver Health, and her efforts to get treatment at the jail were ignored ("Rae of Sunshine," March 9, 2006). Settlement negotiations continue between the family and the city over the conduct of PADF staff; amid allegations of coverup and falsified documents, one employee has resigned and three others have been disciplined.

Rice's death may be an instance of exceptional neglect, but there are plenty of horror stories about the downtown jail. The facility processes 48,000 detainees a year, most of them moving through the place in a day or two — just long enough to make bond or get to court. With the Democratic National Convention looming — and with it the prospect of hundreds, if not thousands, of protester arrests — the jail's procedures for booking and release and dealing with medical emergencies have come under increasing scrutiny.

The ACLU of Colorado recently tried to obtain a copy of the jail's policy manual. City officials refused to provide the document. The ACLU sued. The city grudgingly handed over heavily redacted excerpts. The two sides are now wrangling over the blacked-out portions, and ACLU executive director Mark Silverstein wonders if the city is truly prepared for the onslaught of citizens it might soon be taking into custody.

Silverstein notes that the city shifted its tactics for dealing with Columbus Day protesters, from "cite and release" (simply issuing tickets) to hauling them in for the entire booking process. Last year's haul of more than eighty protesters led to significant delays in processing, he says, requiring long waits for release even after bond had been posted. "If you can't process eighty people in a prompt manner, what's going to happen when you have 1,500?" he asks.

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