BATON ROUGE -- A wrongful death lawsuit concerning a 72-year-old man who died in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is moving forward.
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana Judge John W. deGravelles, on Aug. 1, refused a request by parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, prison warden Dennis Grimes and private contractor Prison Medical Services to dismiss the case.
Inmate Paul Cleveland entered East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Sept. 20, 2014, after he allegedly threatened to kill an Ascension Parish Court judge, a prosecutor and himself. He was pronounced dead by prison authorities less than two months later, on Nov. 12.
Cleveland suffered from a variety of physical and mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments, court documents show. In the lawsuit, family members assert he wasn't given proper medical treatment. They also contend medical staff at the prison were not adequately trained to diagnose or treat his many ailments, more specifically bipolar disorder and heart problems.
In their request that the lawsuit be dismissed, the East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff, prison warden and Prison Medical Services said Cleveland received plenty of medical care from specialists, nurses, social workers and others.
deGravelles ruled the plaintiffs had a valid, plausible case that had been expressed with sufficient specificity to satisfy statutory requirements and legal precedent.
"Federal civil court rules prohibit me from talking about a pending case,¨ Franz Borghardt, one of the Cleveland family's attorneys, told the Louisiana Record.
Borghardt was quoted in an earlier news report as saying the family was pleased with the decision, which paves the way for the wrongful death lawsuit to move forward.
Prison wrongful death lawsuits have become increasingly common in Louisiana and throughout the U.S. as prison populations have swelled, and legislators and judges have adopted stricter mandatory arrest and jail policies, said Gretna-based attorney Peter Russell, a former police officer.
Because of stricter law enforcement policies currently in place, residents and society are obligated to shoulder the growing burden in terms of monetary and associated social costs, Russell said.
"We're asking sheriffs and cops to tow the line and make arrests, generally speaking, without providing them the additional training they need or access to medical facilities required,¨ Russell told the Louisiana Record.
"Put simply, we're arresting and jailing people for offenses they would not have been jailed for in previous decades. The burden is increasingly falling on local municipalities, prosecutors, judges and local sheriff offices that in many cases don't have the resources or the necessary capacity to deal with them."
Louisiana prosecutors, attorneys, judges and law enforcement agencies are not as aware as they need to be regarding the alternative legal measures and steps that can be taken to prevent injuries and wrongful deaths from occurring when warrants are issued, arrests made and alleged perpetrators jailed, Russell said. In Cleveland's case, his attorney should have requested that a judge grant the family access to visit, diagnose and offer Cleveland treatment while he was in jail, he said.
"The prosecuting attorney and judge could and should have given explicit instructions that Cleveland be taken to a secure medical facility and be given a thorough physical and mental health evaluation so as to determine if he was or was not in sufficiently sound mental and physical condition to sustain a jail stay," Russell said.
Another opportunity to prevent Cleveland's death was missed when Cleveland's attorney and the presiding judge did not request or issue an order that Cleveland be transferred from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison to a secure medical facility for evaluation and possible treatment, Russell said.
The U.S. prison population was the highest in the world, totaling more than 1.5 million prisoners as of year-end 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate of any state, as well as the highest number of prison deaths. Cancer and heart disease were by far the two most common causes of prison deaths in Louisiana from 2000-2013, according to an analysis of DOJ data by NOLA.
Louisiana's prisoner population is aging in parallel with the aging of the entire U.S. population. That has resulted in prisons spending more time and money to provide inmates medical services and treatment, according to NOLA's study. Also compounding the problem is that prison inmates are much more likely to be in poor health and/or have medical problems than the general population, Russell noted. Louisiana has the highest rates of HIV infection (37 diagnosed with HIV per 100,000), and that's magnified in the state's prison population, for instance.