Family of Colorado inmate files wrongful death suit, says he was denied medication

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2016 8:29 PM

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - A mentally ill prisoner who was found naked and dead in a Colorado jail cell two years ago was denied his psychiatric medication and physically abused by staff at the lock-up, lawyers for the inmate's family said Friday.

John Patrick Walter died in the Fremont County jail in April 2014, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family in U.S. District Court in Denver on Thursday.

A lawyer for the family, Edwin Budge, said an autopsy listed the cause of death as undetermined.

"The coroner was not privy to all the information," Budge told Reuters, adding that Walter suffered broken ribs and other injuries while incarcerated.

Walter, 53, was arrested on a felony assault charge and was being held at the jail in Canon City, about 90 miles southwest of Denver, for two weeks before he died, the complaint said.

He was taking a prescribed dosage of clonazepam, a psychotropic medication used to treat anxiety disorders and other maladies, when he was booked into the jail.

Users of clonazepam can become dependent on it, the lawsuit said, and patients who abruptly stop taking the drug suffer withdrawal.

Jail staff did not wean Walter off the drug, and he went into a spiral of physical and psychological distress, including a 30-pound weight loss, incontinence and a host of other obvious symptoms, the complaint said.

"Mr. Walter's psychotic break from reality was so profound that he was often heard screaming and seen kicking, punching, and clawing at the walls and door in an apparent effort to escape imaginary people in his cell," the complaint said.

Despite his deteriorating condition, deputies "repeatedly" sprayed Walter with pepper spray, shocked him with a stun gun and strapped him in a restraint chair in an effort to control him.

Named as defendants are Fremont County Sheriff James Beicker, jail deputies and the healthcare corporation that contracts with the county to provide medical services to prisoners.

Neither Beicker nor the county attorney could be reached for comment.

The family seeks unspecified damages.

The suit comes as a Washington state commission cleared a nurse of wrongdoing in the April 2015 death of a mentally ill inmate she did not medically treat the day before he died of dehydration and malnutrition in a county jail north of Seattle, an official said on Friday.

(Additional reporting in by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Leslie Adler)