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Mentally ill woman dies in custody, lawsuit alleges deprivation of medical care

Andrew Cuomo

A lawsuit filed by the family of a Washington woman who died while in jail in 2018 alleges inhumane confinement and deprivation of adequate medical care where she was held.

The death of Damaris Rodriguez, who was suffering from symptoms of psychosis, followed four days of “inexcusable neglect and appalling conditions at the South Correctional Entity Jail,” the lawsuit says.

CNN affiliate KIRO first reported her death this week.

On December 30, 2017, Rodriguez suffered from a mental health episode while at her home in the Washington city of SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle, according to the lawsuit. Rodriguez’s husband, Reynaldo, called 911 and requested medical assistance.

Damaris Rodriguez had previously suffered from bipolar disorder, and had recently developed a metabolic disorder that caused “psychosis symptoms,” the lawsuit says.

However, according to the family’s attorney, Nathan Bingham, law enforcement arrived before an ambulance and Rodriguez was arrested on suspicion of fourth degree assault against her husband. While officers were at the home responding to the call, her husband, however, insisted Rodriguez’s actions had not been intentional and that she was having a mental health crisis, repeatedly telling police that he did not want her to be arrested.

According to the lawsuit, Reynaldo “has trouble communicating about complex topics in English.”

The King County Sheriff’s Office had determined the incoming call to be a domestic violence call and, according to Ryan Abbott with the King County Sheriff’s Office, with all domestic violence calls, Washington state law requires law enforcement to make an arrest if responding officers determine there is any kind of complaint of pain, or that an assault has occurred.

King County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Rodriguez and took her to the South Correctional Entity Jail (SCORE).

‘Starvation and sleep deprivation eventually took their toll’

Rodriguez spent four days alone in a cell, where video surveillance footage shows she was largely naked, surrounded by her own urine and vomit, and having what appear to be hallucinations, according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Nathan Bingham said though Washington court rules dictate that an arraignment take place before the end of the next business day, Rodriguez was never taken to court.

The lawsuit alleges that “starvation and sleep deprivation eventually took their toll,” and Rodriguez developed a metabolic condition called ketoacidosis, which leads to water intoxication.

According to the complaint, corrections officers and medical staff knew of the danger of water intoxication, but did not conduct proper welfare checks, instead moving Rodriguez to a cell without a sink, where she later died on January 4, 2018.

The lawsuit alleges that Rodriguez died as a result of water intoxication. The King County Medical Examiner’s Officer determined her death to be a sudden death during excited delirium and has classified it as natural.

Attorney Nathan Bingham said there were numerous log entries on welfare checks that corrections officers signed off on which the lawsuit alleges never occurred, including an entry claiming that Rodriguez was offered and refused water almost an hour after she had stopped breathing.

The lawsuit claims that Rodriguez died, because the facility and their healthcare provider NaphCare, operate under “the perverse economic incentives of a for-profit jail. SCORE and NaphCare cut corners and make staffing policies and medical decisions based on their financial interests — not the health of their inmates.”

NaphCare, the company that helps correctional facilities like SCORE “manage their healthcare needs by offering an exceptional team of medical professionals,” responded with a statement saying, “Due to limited community resources, jails have become the largest providers of mental health care in the country. The correctional system is a difficult environment in which to treat or rehabilitate individuals living with serious mental illness. (…) Unfortunately, the jail population, particularly those with serious mental illness, are highly prone to sudden, unpreventable cardiac events. The King County Medical Examiner determined the cause of death in this instance to be sudden and natural. To date, there is no evidence in support of the statements regarding cause of death made by lawyers of the family.”

In a statement provided to KIRO, SCORE said that while in custody, Rodriguez “had been seen by medical and mental health personnel and was observed over the course of her stay by corrections staff and medical personnel. Upon finding her unresponsive, staff immediately initiated emergency procedures and began CPR. Unfortunately, the individual did not survive and was pronounced dead in the facility.”

According to the facility’s statement, an investigation into Rodriguez’s death was conducted by the Des Moines Police Department, which concluded that “no malicious criminal act” contributed to her death.

In their court filings, defendants have asked the court to dismiss the complaint, which they claim “provides a confusing, distracting, inflammatory, and unduly prejudicial backdrop.”

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