The Torturous, Completely Preventable Slow-Motion Death of Dennis Choquette

The Torturous, Completely Preventable Slow-Motion Death of Dennis Choquette
Getty Illustration
When he entered a for-profit Colorado prison in July 2014, Dennis Choquette had a serious but treatable foot malady related to diabetes.

But according to a lawsuit filed by his estate, his jailers repeatedly refused to address this problem as a way of saving money, thereby allowing his condition to deteriorate slowly and agonizingly over the course of more than a year.

He died in November 2016, on the very day that lawyers working on his behalf had been scheduled to file a motion asking a judge to set aside his sentence and order that he be admitted to a hospital for an amputation.

At the time that her firm first became involved with Choquette's case, lawyer Anna Holland Edwards says, "We thought that if we got him some help, he could still walk with a prosthetic. Instead, they played financial games, pretending that the surgery was elective. They pretended it wasn't an emergency until finally it became an emergency. And because of their recklessness, Dennis Choquette died from that emergency."

click to enlarge 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
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
Choquette was imprisoned in the Bent County Correctional Facility, a jail owned by 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."

According to John Holland, who's also working on the case under the auspices of Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, P.C., 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 maintains. "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 on view below, but here's how Holland summarizes the sequence of events.

"Dennis had a history of diabetes," he notes. "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."

In 2014, Choquette "went to jail for his latest criminality, which was some kind of fraud charge," Holland continues. "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."

click to enlarge The Bent County Correctional Facility, operated by Corrections Corporation of America. - GOOGLE MAPS
The Bent County Correctional Facility, operated by Corrections Corporation of America.
Google Maps
At Bent, Holland maintains, "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 says, "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 he was transferred to the Department of Corrections, Choquette's foot "was basically rotting," Holland allows. "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 describes 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.

click to enlarge An image from "The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 Years of Corrections Corporation of America," a 2013 Grassroots Leadership report. - GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP
An image from "The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 Years of Corrections Corporation of America," a 2013 Grassroots Leadership report.
"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 says.

The length of time that elapsed between Choquette's entry into jail and his demise makes 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 sees the story as an example of a larger problem.

"What happened to Dennis is exactly what's wrong with health care at corrections," she says. "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 argues 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."

Here's the lawsuit.

Estate of 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