A federal appeals court this week sided with an inmate representing himself in a lawsuit alleging Texas prison staff failed to treat him when he had a stroke, then continued showing “deliberate indifference” that he says contributed to a heart attack two weeks later.
It’s not common for a court to side with prisoners representing themselves in claims over conditions and care, legal experts said, though some called the alleged facts of the case “egregious” and “disturbing.”
“It’s rare for the courts to acknowledge that bad conditions are a violation of rights,” said Natalia Cornelio, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s criminal justice program. “Any kind of acknowledgement that what a jail is doing might amount to a violation of rights is rare.”
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling now tosses the case back to a lower court for further action.
The claim stems from a 2016 incident at the Robertson Unit in Abilene, where Carl David Jones was doing time for a capital murder charge. That April, he had a stroke in the unit’s 7 Building, he alleged in court filings.
His fellow prisoners flagged the guards for help but one of the responding sergeants aggressively confronted Jones, the suit alleges.
“You ain’t no f***ing doctor, you don’t know if you’re having a stroke,” he said, according to the lawsuit. It was a “significant delay” before guards took Jones to the infirmary – where a doctor declared it had already been so long that the only medication on hand would be ineffective.
Ultimately, the doctor just sent Jones back to his cell “without treatment,” the claim alleges.
On April 3 at 6 p.m., the unit went on lockdown for a bi-annual search. Officers went through prisoners’ property and scoured the grounds to root out contraband. Inmates needed security escorts to move around the facility.
The following morning, the suit alleges, the food service manager cancelled special low-sugar medical diets for all diabetics, including Jones.
As his blood sugar levels climbed, the prisoner filed a grievance and the prison continued ignoring his medical needs, he said. But the form was deemed “redundant” and returned. Then on April 20, he had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital.
In August 2016, Jones filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, claiming the prison had once again taken away his medical diet during a lockdown, possibly elevating his risk for another heart attack or stroke.
A federal judge denied his request without holding a hearing, and Jones filed an appeal in March. In that filing, he wrote that the prisons had yet again put the unit on lockdown and only offered him high-sugar foods instead of his medically prescribed diet.
“Jones’s pleadings allege a pattern of knowing interferences with prescribed medical care for his diabetes, despite his multiple complaints and his official grievance, which were all essentially ignored,” the federal appeals court wrote in last week’s ruling.
“The courts cannot simply assume that providing necessary medical care to a prisoner would be too much of an inconvenience to prison authorities.”
The judges bounced the case back to a lower court, where Davis will still have to prove his case.
“It’s unusual, but this is a pretty egregious set of facts,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “This is not a case of an inmate suing for some amount of money – this is an inmate saying, ‘I need to get the appropriate food, even though we’re in a lockdown situation.'”
The law on that, she said, is “quite clear.”
“Correctional staff can’t interfere with an inmates’s medical treatment,” she said. “Just because it’s a lockdown doesn’t take precedence over a need for someone’s continued medical treatment.”
A Texas prison spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.