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Pain Management

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

"The police treated me with complete dignity and total respect," Thomason says. "I assumed I was going to be put into the infirmary."

The city maintains a secure ward for sick prisoners at Denver Health, known as the Correctional Care Medical Facility. But getting there proved to be more complicated than Thomason had thought it would be. The officers took him to the PADF, where his pills were promptly confiscated, along with his personal property. Nancye Zimmer, a nurse employed by Denver Health at the jail, reviewed his medications, obtained records of the prescriptions by fax — and told him that narcotics were not allowed in the PADF. The substitute for his pain medication would be Motrin, a brand name for ibuprofen.

Thomason was speechless. He could gobble a bottle of Motrin and it wouldn't begin to approximate the kind of narcotic medication he depended on. He hadn't had his evening dose of Oxy before the cops arrived, and he was already starting to feel its absence. Sudden withdrawal from high levels of Oxycontin is comparable to kicking heroin cold turkey; the shock to the system can cause seizures and heart failure. According to Thomason, the conversation he had with Zimmer was brief — and appalling.

"Is detoxification going to be a problem for you?" Zimmer asked.

"Going from 240 milligrams a day to zero can kill me," Thomason said.

"Stopping Xanax can kill you, too," Zimmer replied. "You're going to have to find a way to bond out or find a way to the infirmary."

But Zimmer wasn't forthcoming with any ideas for how Thomason was supposed to get to the infirmary, and his pleas for something stronger than ibuprofen were ignored. So were the pleas of his mother, Judy Largo. True to her word, the police officer who'd brought Thomason to the PADF called Largo in Phoenix to let her know about the arrest. Largo then spoke with another jail deputy by phone, describing her son's condition and begging that he be taken to the infirmary.

The deputy wasn't sympathetic. "She just said, 'He's eighteen, he can speak for himself,'" Largo remembers. "I told her I was going to hold her responsible if anything happened to him."

Thomason spent the night in a cell with two other prisoners. His bed was a mat on the floor, tucked under another man's cot. He sweated. He shook. He writhed. And he felt the pain devour him, right down to the core.

He knew something about pain. He'd had long needles poked into his bone marrow. He'd undergone cycle after cycle of chemo that left him puking and helpless. But that was all just amateur hour compared to this. It felt like an elephant was standing on his back and his legs. It felt like some gung-ho mechanic was taking a wrench to his bones and twisting them, tightening them until they snapped.

A nurse on rounds saw him sweating profusely on the floor and asked him what was wrong. He told her he needed his medication. She offered him ibuprofen.

Around mid-morning he heard names being called out: people going to court. Then he heard his name. The judge released him on his own recognizance. The deputies took him back to the jail, to a holding cell where people being released wait while their paperwork is processed.

"I just told myself, 'Hang on,'" he recalls. "'In an hour or two you'll have your medication and you'll be fine.'"

Around two in the afternoon, they let him out of the cell and handed him his personal property. Thomason asked a deputy how he would go about getting his $1,200 back.

The deputy, whose name was Joseph Cleveland, seemed to take offense at this. He threw down Thomason's papers and called him a "fucking asshole," according to Thomason.

"You picked the wrong fucking day to fuck with me," Cleveland said. "I'm here to help. But you don't appreciate my help, so you get to spend my shift with me."

Cleveland took him back to the holding cell.

And left him there.


The PADF computerized record shows that Thomason was released from custody at 1:45 p.m. on August 26, 2006. Actually, he wasn't allowed to leave for another six hours. He was an off-the-books prisoner — right up until his condition became so alarming that the jail staff wanted nothing more to do with him.

What happened during those six hours remains a matter of dispute. Thomason has accused Cleveland of threatening him, spraying spit on him and calling him a "faggot" and a "beatnik." Cleveland has denied being abusive or making threats, and told investigators that Thomason was "argumentative" during the release process. But Thomason's attorneys say their client's version is supported on key points by other witnesses and by the images on a jail surveillance video, which is currently sealed under a protective order in the lawsuit.

According to Thomason's complaint, the video shows Cleveland "following Mr. Thomason into the holding cell and getting in his face." Another deputy told investigators that he heard Cleveland loudly announcing that Thomason had "picked the wrong day to fuck with me." He did not recall Cleveland telling the prisoner to shut up or he would "fuck him up."

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