Detention center sued over 2019 inmate death

LAS CRUCES – Unpaid fines amounting to $242 landed Hector Garcia in the county jail for six days in August 2019. On day six, he was dead, a federal complaint says.

The lawsuit, brought by Garcia’s son, says Doña Ana County Detention Center staff and employees of Corizon Health – the contractor providing medical and behavioral services at the detention center – denied Garcia higher-level care even after he began exhibiting symptoms of a perforated ulcer, a condition that requires emergency surgery.

The lack of care allegedly continued despite episodes of collapsing, vomiting blood and severe abdominal pain over several days.

“In any other place (other than a jail or prison) he would have been sent to the hospital and would have lived,” Garcia’s attorney, Matthew Coyte, wrote in an email.

Neither the county nor Corizon responded to queries for this report.

The lawsuit alleges Corizon staff ignored Garcia’s medical history of peptic ulcers and his worsening symptoms as he began to die of sepsis, refusing to call 911 or transport him to a hospital until it was too late.

And then, at 1 a.m., the complaint states that a Corizon nurse practitioner ordered a security van to take him instead of an ambulance, saving money but delaying transportation as the last chance to save his life drifted away.

“Detention staff have a constitutional obligation to summon 911 when they see a need for immediate emergency medical care which cannot be treated in the jail,” the lawsuit argues.

Three detention officers and six staff members of Corizon are accused by Hector Garcia Jr. of deliberate indifference over his father’s suffering and medical deterioration.

Also named in the lawsuit is Vincent Pokluda, a former assistant county manager who was, at the time of Garcia’s custody, the detention center’s acting director. Pokluda retired from the county at the end of 2019.

On top of multiple allegations of negligent medical care, the complaint says Pokluda signed off on a policy barring detention center staff from calling 911 unless instructed to do so by Corizon personnel.

That allegation echoes a complaint in another pending lawsuit against the county and Corizon.

Antonio Reali, a former inmate with a history of heart trouble, claims Corizon and detention center staff ignored his reports of severe chest pains while he was in custody in 2017, denied him medication and sent him back to his cell even after two abnormal EKGs. He later suffered a heart attack and multiorgan failure.

Corizon Health, based in Brentwood, Tennessee, faces lawsuits in several states alleging negligent or delayed medical care.

In 2013, the county paid out one of the largest prisoner civil rights settlements in U.S. history – $15.5 million – for Stephen Slevin, who was held in solitary confinement for 22 months and denied medical care, to the point where he extracted his own tooth.

Pokluda was the second consecutive interim director at the detention center following the 2017 departure of Chris Barela, according to Sun-News reports. Pokluda was named acting director in 2018, overseeing the jail while still serving as assistant county manager, until Daniel Peters was named permanent director and Pokluda retired in 2019.

The current director, Bryan Baker, assumed the position on an interim basis in March 2020 and was permanently appointed in September.

Garcia’s lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages plus court costs for violations of his civil and constitutional rights, under the Civil Rights Act, New Mexico’s Tort Claims Act and the Wrongful Death Act.

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