Longform

Ken McGill left jail behind, but he can't escape the stroke he suffered there

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Jen's life has changed, too. "I feel more like a caregiver instead of a wife," she says.

Even if he had time for a job between all his appointments, Ken says he can no longer work in his field: His dizziness would be a liability on construction sites, and his mental lapses prohibit him from doing the complicated construction bids he used to prepare. "I can't live the life I used to live," he says. "I just don't know what my future is going to hold for me."

Ken's physician, Alan Schultz, says this outcome might have been avoided if Ken had been treated in a timely fashion. "We have a saying in the medical world that 'time is tissue,'" he explains. "And when somebody has a stroke, it's matter of minutes, not hours, that actually makes a difference. Brain death starts at four minutes, and cells are basically toast at ten minutes."

And the jail's medical personnel waiting more than sixteen hours after Ken's noticeable signs of a stroke, such as slurred speech and facial droop, appeared before sending him to the hospital? "That is a debacle of medical care," says Schultz. "It is absolutely asinine."

That's why Ken and Jen have filed suit against Jefferson County, as well as Correctional Healthcare Companies and several of the CHC medical personnel who worked at the jail. Their lawsuit alleges that those involved were negligent in failing to address Ken's obvious medical needs and interfering with his wife's ability to participate in treatment. The suit also claims that they violated Ken's civil rights under the Eighth Amendment's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause, which entitles prisoners to adequate medical care.

"I find the facts alleged in this case to be particularly outrageous," says Anna Holland Edwards of Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, the Denver-based law firm representing the couple. "We as a society do not convict people to a time of abandonment in medical crisis. Ken was serving the time, taking responsibility for what he had done. Nothing he had done justified being treated as though his life didn't matter."

Holland Edwards knows that the medical needs of a jail inmate might not be the most sympathetic of stories these days, especially since many Americans who aren't behind bars have their own problems with health care and health insurance. But as she points out, "Jail is one of the few places where you don't have a choice for health care," she says. "The combination of law-enforcement power and deficient medical care is extremely dangerous, because prisoners cannot act for their own welfare. They can't just go to another doctor if they are being abandoned in a crisis."

For her, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence came from a suggestion by Ken: He wondered if the jail might still have the recording of his September 17 phone conversation with his wife. The recording, which the attorney obtained from the sheriff's office, was a bombshell. "We have an actual tape at 8:30 p.m. of him slurring his words, complaining of right-sided weakness, telling people he thought he had a stroke," she says. "Ken did exactly what one should do: He brought his earliest symptoms to medical staff in the jail. If he had not been prevented by his jailers and their private care system from getting the emergency care he knew he needed and his co-inmates knew he needed, he would have been able to be taken to any emergency room and be treated for this obvious life-threatening emergency and would not be nearly as disabled as he is today, if at all."

But Techmeyer says the deputies at the jail did everything they could to address Ken's needs. "I don't know really what else we could do from the deputies' standpoint to make sure he was provided medical care," says Techmeyer. "We were responsive to his requests for medical care and sent him down for evaluation." And while Jeffco is legally responsible for the care Ken received, the nurses and doctors worked for CHC, he notes, adding, "I don't think it's fair for me to comment on their actions and how they arrived at their evaluations."

CHC also appears reluctant to comment. The company did not respond to multiple messages, including those left with its in-house corporate legal department, which takes "a proactive approach to litigation and risk management to reduce our clients' exposure to liability," according to the CHC website.

This isn't the first time that CHC, which manages the health care of more than 70,000 inmates in 27 states, has faced complaints. In 2008, a Department of Justice investigation of the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma found that "detainees' serious medical needs are not adequately met" by the jail's medical program, which was being run by Correctional Healthcare Management, a CHC subsidiary. In particular, the report highlighted the "unconscionable" instance of a female detainee forced to remain seated in a wheelchair and handcuffed to a handrail while giving birth to a three-month-premature baby that was later pronounced dead. Lawsuits against the company have repeatedly captured headlines; the stories describe multiple inmate deaths and detail how one prisoner had to have several parts of his limbs removed because of an untreated septic condition. In Illinois, more than a million dollars has reportedly been paid out since 2010 to settle lawsuits against Dr. Stephen Cullinan and his company, Health Professionals Limited, which was acquired by CHC in 2007. And here in Colorado, lawsuits have been filed against CHC and its subsidiaries over inmate care in Larimer, Pueblo, Mesa, El Paso and Teller counties.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner