At the Fremont County jail, forcing inmates to go "cold turkey" from certain prescription drugs was allegedly the norm, despite what written policies state.
That's among the latest claims in an ongoing federal lawsuit over the April 2014 death of John Patrick Walter, a 53-year-old inmate who shed 30 pounds in less than three weeks and lapsed into delusions after he was deprived his daily doses of clonazepam, an antianxiety drug commonly known by its trade name, Klonopin.
Walter, who was booked into the Cañon City jail on suspicion of assault, had been on high doses for years with a doctor's permission, his attorneys say. He "begged" nurses for his medication, and inmates and deputies reported seeing him unravel day by day while medical staff ignored his pleas, court filings said. A revised autopsy earlier this year concluded that Walter died of benzodiazepine withdrawal, bolstering claims at the heart of the wrongful death action, which alleges negligence by jailers and the jail's medical provider at the time, Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc. (CHC).
Although the for-profit company had written policies in place warning of the dangers of cutting off inmates from the prescription benzodiazepines - including the risk of death - the company's marching orders said otherwise, according to newly filed pleadings.
The documents quote the jail's former head nurse, Kathy Maestas, who described an "unwritten, across-the-board" policy pertaining to the antianxiety medications while under deposition earlier this year, attorneys say.
"She explained that CHC management directed that all inmates would be immediately discontinued from their (benzodiazepine) prescriptions upon entering the jail - with no tapering from the medication," said one recent pleading. A second nurse confirmed that withholding benzodiazepines was the norm, the documents allege.
Maestas said the orders were handed down from Dr. Raymond Herr, then CHC's chief medical officer.
Other depositions showed a raft of missteps by jail health providers, which went undiscovered during a "sham" Fremont County sheriff's investigation that failed to interview eyewitnesses to Walter's death, one of the attorneys for his estate, Ed Budge, previously told The Gazette.
The Nashville-based company was later acquired by Correct Care Solutions (CCS), which assumed its contract with the Fremont County jail. Fremont County recently severed its relationship. Herr couldn't be reached for comment.
Both companies have been dogged by civil actions alleging they put profits ahead of patients, short-staffing jails, skimping on medications and being slow to take inmates to hospitals for emergencies in order to keep costs low.
The latest allegations came as attorneys for Walter's estate responded to a trio of motions asking a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. Among the defendants are CHC/Correct Care Solutions, Fremont County, the county's sheriff, James Beicker, and numerous sheriff's employees and healthcare workers. Messages sent to representatives of Beicker, Correct Care Solutions and the Fremont County Attorney's Office weren't immediately returned.
As his health deteriorated, Walter stopped eating or sleeping, began to shake uncontrollably, and shouted at nonexistent people to get out of his cell.
Attorneys say his behavior drew harsh treatment by detention deputies, who forced him into a restraint chair and hit him with a Taser and pepper spray.
At the time of his death, Walter's body showed evidence of internal injuries and multiple broken ribs. An expert retained by plaintiff's attorneys concluded the broken bones were "probably caused by another person or persons kicking or stomping on (him)" within days of Walter's death, when he had no cellmates, the documents said.
Numerous deputies raised alarms over Walter's worsening condition, but were told that Walter was being monitored, the pleadings allege.
Among them were then-Deputy Christopher Wilson, who saw Walter hours before his death.
"I could see bruises on his hands, feet, shins and torso," he recounted in a deposition. "He was lying on the cell floor, simply shaking. He was emaciated and seemed to have no sense of his surroundings or the condition he was in."
Wilson recalled telling a fellow deputy, Charlene Combs, that he "would not be surprised if (Walter) dies tonight."
"She agreed with me and told me that her superiors and pretty much everyone else working in the booking area were aware of Mr. Walter's situation," he said. "She also told me that the jail's nurse was aware of Mr. Walter's situation."