Desiree Diaz died during alcohol withdrawal, which caused her under-active thyroid to send her into a coma one day after being brought to York Correctional Institution in June 2018, according to court papers.
The lawsuit filed against the state of Connecticut and several correction officials Friday by Diaz’s mother, Katharine Lindsay, is one of several brought by families of inmates who claim that substandard medical care in the state’s prisons has led to needless suffering and deaths.
The Office of Attorney General William Tong, which will be defending the state in the lawsuit declined to comment.
Attorney Ken Krayeske, who is representing Lindsay, said in the suit that Desiree’s death is part of a repeated pattern by former Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple of “allowing a culture of deliberate indifference to run rampant through all his prisons, so that all staff under his supervision ignored serious medical needs of prisoners like Ms. Diaz.”
In Diaz’s case, the 33-year-old mother of three was brought to York on June 4, 2018, after being arraigned on domestic violence charges.
The arraignment papers sent with Diaz to the prison indicated that a judge ordered treatment for withdrawal. But she received no treatment, no monitoring for her thyroid issue and wasn’t placed on a watch for symptoms of withdrawal, court papers said.
Prison medical intake documents show that Amy Caturano, a registered nurse working at York, noted in Diaz’s patient records that she was showing signs of alcohol withdrawal. But Caturano later said that the 33-year-old was not in withdrawal, court papers said.
Caturano, former Medical Director of the University of Connecticut’s Correctional Managed Health Care Monica Farinella, and Deputy Commissioner of Operations and Rehabilitative Services Cheryl Cepelak also were named in the lawsuit.
Diaz was a chronic drinker who also suffered from hypothyroidism, according to the report of an expert witness that was attached to the 42-page lawsuit. Alcohol and alcohol withdrawal have direct effects on thyroid function, the board-certified endocrinologist said. The name of the witness was withheld from the court papers.
The endocrinologist said they believed with a “reasonable degree of certainty” that if Diaz’s hypothyroidism was properly monitored and treated as she was undergoing alcohol withdrawal, she likely wouldn’t have slipped into a coma.
Diaz was found unresponsive in her bunk the morning of June 5. She apparently had been dead for so long that emergency medical technicians refused to transport Diaz because she was “stiff and cold” as prison nurses were performing CPR.
Diaz’s mother is seeking punitive damages and training of all nurses at the state’s only prison for women in how to deal with alcohol withdrawal in female inmates, the lawsuit said.
At the time of Diaz’s death the DOC was about to transition from health care provided by UConn’s Correctional Managed Health Care to a health care system run by the agency. The CMHC system was riddled with problems and had been for years, Krayeske said in court papers.
The lawsuit alleges that Semple knew medical care under UConn was substandard but failed to do anything about it. Dr. Kathleen Maurer, who served as the DOC medical director from 2011 to 2018, testified during a deposition in 2018 that she had repeatedly expressed concerns to Semple about the quality of care inmates were receiving. She testified that the commissioner told her that we cannot embarrass our state’s flagship university,” according to the Diaz lawsuit.
Krayeske is also representing the families of five other inmates who are suing the DOC and Semple claiming substandard medical care. The family of William Bennett who died of cancer in custody was handed a victory earlier this week when a federal judge required Semple to hand over DOC documents that he had been battling to keep private for months.
Bennett had been complaining of symptoms for nearly two years before he was brought to the hospital which found a large tumor in his throat. He died in 2017.
Rollin Cook, the former head of Utah’s prison system, was appointed DOC Commissioner by Gov. Ned Lamont in January of 2019. He inherited a prison health care system in flux and facing several lawsuits including the five Krayeske had previously filed over inadequate inmate medical care. Cook spent months trying to hire health care staff while dealing with a ballooning budget and the coronavirus pandemic. He resigned in July.
The prison health care system is still rife with problems, according to depositions in the Bennett case. Wait times for inmates to see an outside specialist are long because most requests are now approved after so many lawsuits were filed, one doctor told Krayeske.
Krayeske claims Diaz’s 14th Amendment rights to adequate healthcare were violated by the agency which failed to properly train staff. Further, the suit alleges discrimination by the DOC in its failure to take reasonable steps to recognize and treat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and provide resources to meet the needs of women like her.
“Semple failed to supervise and manage his staff in a way so that every corrections officer understood and knew how to respond and prioritize medical health situations like that faced by Ms. Diaz,” Krayeske said.