$171K Payout in Dennis Choquette's Cruel Death Is the Tip of the Iceberg

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The State of Colorado, acting for the Department of Corrections, has agreed to pay a fairly modest $171,000 to settle a lawsuit in the torturous, slow-motion, completely preventable jail death of Dennis Choquette in November 2016. But Choquette's estate has also reached confidential agreements with a slew of other defendants, including a giant private-prison company that owns the facility where most of the horrors took place. And given the disturbing facts of the case, which we first outlined this past February, after the complaint was filed, the sum of the settlements is almost certainly much, much larger.

In July 2014, as we've reported, Choquette was imprisoned in the Bent County Correctional Facility, a jail in the portfolio of Corrections Corporation of America. CCA, whose website currently lists thirteen jails or facilities in Colorado, including the one in Bent County, is at the center of the 1999 feature article by Alan Prendergast headlined "McPrison." And in 2013, Prendergast tackled the topic again in "Thirty Years of Private Prisons: New Report Details Trouble Behind Bars."

In the latter post, about a scathing condemnation of the firm by the group Grassroots Leadership, Prendergast wrote that CCA was "launched in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors" and has been criticized over the years based on allegations that its "for-profit model cuts too many corners, resulting in ill-trained and poorly paid staff," as well as "inadequate medical care."

John Holland, who worked on the case under the auspices of Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, P.C. alongside partner and co-counsel Anna Holland Edwards, believes that Choquette's experiences definitely reinforce this last accusation. "His case is the Magna Carta for the protection of the civil rights of diabetics who are being incarcerated," he told us for our previous post. "This is one of the things you fear most about jails — that you have a clear medical need and no one will help you."

The complete lawsuit is accessible below, but here's how Holland summarized the sequence of events.

"Dennis had a history of diabetes," he noted. "He had Charcot Syndrome, which is a terrible diabetic problem where basically your bones can disintegrate. He'd had Charcot in his right foot, and that had been successfully managed. He was still ambulatory. But he was developing it in his left foot, too."

Dennis Choquette, left, in a family photo also featuring Teresa Young, right, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of his estate.
Courtesy of Teresa Young
In 2014, Choquette "went to jail for his latest criminality, which was some kind of fraud charge," Holland continued. "When you're admitted, they send you through a classification system. In that system, he talked about his problems, and when they X-rayed his left foot, they discovered that he was developing Charcot there, too. But they didn't tell him. Instead, they put him into a private facility" — the jail in Bent County — "that had no capacity to care for people who have ambulation problems. And they did it knowing he had this foot condition."

At Bent, Holland maintained, "they made him walk on this foot for months, to the point where he could feel his bones were breaking. But no one would help him. And when he finally got to a hospital, his foot had progressed to the point where it was no longer viable for ambulation. He had a known deteriorating condition, and they walked him into making it worse."

Despite being kept in the dark about the Charcot diagnosis upon entering the Bent County jail, Choquette knew something was wrong and actively advocated for medical care via communication with authorities known by the slang term "kites." Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman got involved on his behalf, too. "We filed suit," Holland said, "and one of the complaints we made is that they basically destroyed his ambulation through their indifference while hiding the condition from him. And when they found out he needed an amputation, they didn't want to pay for it while he was in jail. They considered the surgery to be elective."

By mid-2016, after Choquette was transferred to the Department of Corrections, his foot "was basically rotting," Holland allowed. "But still they wouldn't do anything. The key to his crisis was to get him amputated while he was medically stable, but that didn't happen. They wouldn't let him go to a specialist, and his leg basically opened into a wound."

Eventually, Choquette developed what Holland described as "severe osteomyelitis" — an infection of the bone — "and raging sepsis that forced their hand. He went to the hospital when he was dying, basically. The doctors stabilized him as best they could, pumped him with antibiotics and then went in and cut his leg off."

By then, it was too late.

"Two days into his recovery, his diabetes and sepsis and the major trauma he went through resulted in his heart failing, and he died," Holland stated.

The Bent County Correctional Facility, operated by Corrections Corporation of America.
Google Maps
The length of time that elapsed between Choquette's entry into jail and his demise made the manner of his passing even more tragic, in Holland's view. "This was a slow-motion death. In some cases of people dying in jail, people come in and their condition is exploding with urgency at that specific moment. But this was like watching a slow torture unfold."

Co-counsel Holland Edwards, who also spoke with us in February, characterized the story as an example of a larger problem.

"What happened to Dennis is exactly what's wrong with health care at corrections," she said. "They knew he had a condition, and it was treatable. But they refused to help him or to intervene even after we sued. Even when we brought to their attention that it was likely to result in irreparable harm or death, they still didn't want to help him. We went from trying to help our client to trying to figure out the value to his estate of them having killed him."

She argued that Choquette "died of deliberate indifference to his medical needs. He died because this Department of Corrections system and the Corrections Corporation of America were reckless with his medical care. Certainly, he had underlying medical conditions, like a lot of people in jail. He had diabetes and some heart issues. But his foot should have never gotten to the point where he needed amputation. He should still be alive today."

The suit named a total of 22 defendants, including numerous medical professionals charged with overseeing Choquette's care under the auspices of Correctional Health Partners, LLC, another private operation whose website says it manages "inmate healthcare needs for county and state correctional facilities and systems across the country." But the first entity on the defendants roster is CCA, which has been sued frequently over the years and works hard to prevent the size of its payouts from being made public.

Silence is the rule this time around, too.

"With respect to Mr. Choquette’s case, all claims brought by Mr. Choquette and his estate have now been settled," writes Holland Edwards, corresponding via email. "The settlement between the Department of Corrections and Mr. Choquette’s estate is public because of the public nature of that agency. With respect to the claims against several other private parties, the claims against non-public defendants have now been confidentially settled."

For that reason, we don't know the compensation total in relation to Choquette's death. But Holland Edwards hopes the resolution will resonate.

"Medical care in jails and prisons continues to be a national scandal," she emphasizes. "Civil-rights cases continue to be important to tell the stories of people affected."

Click to read the original lawsuit: Dennis Choquette v. Corrections Corporation of America, et. al.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts