A new lawsuit scheduled to be filed today, August 21, claims the medical staff at Pueblo County Detention Center was so sure inmate Jeremy Laintz was faking an illness, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, that they nearly let him die. And while he lived through his ordeal after he was placed in a medically induced coma and choppered from Pueblo to Denver, he lost part of a lung, six toes and suffered other debilitating injuries that could have been prevented if he'd simply been given antibiotics a week or two earlier.
The lawsuit, shared at the bottom of this post, connects these nightmarish events to conditions at the Pueblo County Detention Center, which officials admit has issues aplenty. Last year, prior to an unsuccessful effort to get local taxpayers to fund a new jail, the county issued a comprehensive report, also accessible below, that predicted "multi-million dollar verdicts" if the problems weren't fixed.
So, too, did Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor, a defendant in the Laintz complaint. In September 2017, he told Colorado Public Radio, "If we don’t get to where we need to be as a community soon, I anticipate a large lawsuit. And unfortunately, I’ll be their best witness."
Here's how Laintz's tale is told by Attorney Anna Holland Edwards of the law firm Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, who represents Laintz in conjunction with co-counsel Erica Grossman.
The name atop the suit's list of defendants is Correctional Health Partners LLC, a Colorado-based firm that provides health care for jails in several states in addition to the Pueblo detention center, which Holland Edwards describes as "a trainwreck. It's so overcrowded there. In the comprehensive report, they say the jail is built to hold 509 people, and it's most efficient when it's at about 80 percent capacity. But during the first six months of last year, the average number of inmates was 777."
On top of that, she continues, "the facility is breaking down. It's filthy. There are bugs coming out of the drains. It's a really bad place."
Laintz arrived at the detention center in October 2016. He was held pre-trial for much of his stint prior to entering a guilty plea for violating a protection order and being ordered to serve ninety days concurrent with a previous possession sentence related to his habit as an intravenous drug user — but "he started having health problems pretty soon after he went in," Holland Edwards says. "He was having problems breathing, and he was in so much pain that he was having problems walking. He was also showing pretty obvious signs of infection, but nobody was really doing anything for him."
On one occasion, Holland Edwards acknowledges, "they gave him an EKG, but it didn't show anything — which it wouldn't have for an infection. When it came back okay, they didn't do anything else to find out why he was having all these symptoms. But his parents pushed really hard, saying they were worried about him. So they sent a mental health worker to check on him."
This staffer said Laintz "looked kind of yellowish and was having a hard time walking and thought medical should see him," Holland Edwards goes on. "But medical didn't go in for another four days, and when they finally did, all the symptoms were worse and he had really low blood pressure — something like 85 over 50. They also did blood work, and the blood work had all kinds of abnormals, but they still didn't do anything."
By this point, even the guards at the detention center, who hadn't previously stepped in when Laintz's fellow inmates tried to intervene on his behalf, were becoming alarmed. As Holland Edwards puts it, "They started calling medical, saying he was turning yellow, he was urinating and defecating on himself, he can't sit up, he keeps laying down, and his blood pressure was getting even lower — around 70 over 50."
This last discovery was made by emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, "and when they got this ridiculously low blood pressure, they called the physician's assistant who had been overseeing this travesty the whole time," Holland Edwards relates. "She said, 'Bring him down to medical and see if you can get an IV into him,' even though he was clearly dying."
Laintz refused this suggestion, she reveals: "He said, 'They won't do anything for me down there,' because the only time he'd been taken down to medical before, they left him in a cell that was dirty and had no water and no bed, and they left him there in excruciating pain for something like six hours."
This standoff ended at around 9 p.m., when the guards overruled the medical staff and ordered that Laintz be sent to an area hospital. But about eight hours earlier, the center's health services administrator called the inmate's parents and offered a very different take.
According to Holland Edwards, the official "left a voicemail that we still have. He said Jeremy was doing what he referred to as forced hyperventilation to get a trip out, and medical wasn't going to do that for him, because there was nothing medically wrong with him."
Well, maybe a little something: "He admitted that one of his labs was a little off. So he said, 'Could you tell him to quit hyperventilating, so maybe we can figure out if there's something going on with his kidneys?'"
Indeed, Laintz's kidneys were in distress — and that's not all.
"When Jeremy got to Saint Mary Corwin hospital in Pueblo, he was critically ill — in respiratory failure and renal failure and heart failure. So they flight-for-lifed him to St. Anthony's hospital in Denver, where he was intubated and put into a medically induced coma. They told his parents he had less than a 10 percent chance to survive and they ought to get to the hospital right away."
Fortunately, Laintz beat the odds. Holland Edwards states the matter plainly: "St. Anthony's saved his life. But he lost part of his left lung, he lost six toes, and he had to have a heart valve replaced. He's clean now and trying to work as an addiction counselor, but he has major disabilities as a result of this, as well as huge medical bills."
All of this was avoidable, Holland Edwards feels, since there was nothing tricky about his diagnosis. "The infection that Jeremy had was endocarditis, which is very common among IV drug users, because they're putting bacteria right into their blood. It should have been the first thing anyone thought of for someone like him. He had a high pulse rate from the time he got into jail and was complaining about chest and body pains — and when I talked to several doctors about this, I didn't even have to get that far into the explanation before they said, 'Oh, endocarditis.' It's just obvious to trained people that's what happened."
Why didn't the staffers at the detention center come to this conclusion? Holland Edwards believes "they're so hellbent on treating everybody like they're faking and that they're trying to gain some kind of advantage that they didn't react when it became a glaringly obvious emergency."
The twin roots of this bias are dollars and cents, she maintains. "One of the allegations in the complaint is that Correctional Health Partners has a contract that calls for them to pay the first $200,000 each year for patient medical, and after that, Pueblo has to pay. And it's not good for them if they want to keep the contract if Pueblo has to pay. They advertise themselves as reducing what they call 'unnecessary medical and hospitalizations,' and if you hospitalize someone who's faking, it costs you a whole bunch of money. So it's cheaper to bet that they're faking — and if you're wrong, pay off the lawsuit."
For Holland Edwards, this sequence of events calls to mind the story of Jeffrey Lillis, described in our recent post "Three Horrendous, Easily Preventable Colorado Jail Deaths." In his case, which her firm is handling in conjunction with attorney David Lane, "it was a different jail but the same problem. He had bacterial pneumonia, and they basically chose to treat it as a viral illness and said, 'If we're right, he'll get better.' But they were wrong, and he died."
Holland Edwards alleges that many of the private companies that contract to provide medical care at jails "aren't using high-level medical providers to make diagnoses. They're using nurses and EMTs to diagnose illegally, outside the scope of their license, because they're cheaper. And that's the way it goes every step of the way. It's a money problem. There's not enough staff, because they're trying to save money, and there's not enough tools, because they're trying to save money — and treating people like they're faking is another mechanism to save money. So money is behind all of this, and people like Jeremy have to pay the price."
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She concedes that some inmates do indeed feign illnesses. But in this instance, "it was like another boy cried wolf and he got punished for it. Jeremy hadn't lied before. He was just disregarded because of this practice of keeping sick people in the jail at all costs to save money."
Given these circumstances, Holland Edwards has compassion for detention center employees who were clearly overworked, underpaid and likely suffering from secondary traumatic stress, popularly known as compassion fatigue. But to her, that's no excuse for what happened.
"I don't think taxpayers should be voting on building jails," she says. "We need to have a system where the people we incarcerate are held in facilities with adequate medical care and adequate sanitation. It's great that the sheriff and the other people behind the ballot measure want to fix this, but they haven't fixed it — and right now, they have a jail that's bursting at the seams with primarily low-level inmates with mental illness and addiction issues. And if we didn't put all these people with mental illness and addiction issues in jail, then the jail wouldn't be overcrowded and they would probably be able to provide adequate medical care. But instead, we cram the jail with people who need treatment and then deprive them of it."
Click to access Jeremy Laintz v. Correctional Health Partners LLC, et. al., and the Pueblo County Jail Task Force comprehensive report.