Family sues Alameda County over asthmatic inmate’s death in jail
Updated 5:42 pm, Tuesday, February 23, 2016
John Burris, center, speaks at a news conference to announce the filing of a federal lawsuit against Alameda County and Corizon Health Inc.
The family of an inmate who died in an Alameda County jail last year filed a lawsuit against the jail system’s private for-profit health contractor and the county Tuesday in federal court, charging that the man’s death was “totally preventable” and caused by negligence.
Mario Martinez, 29, died July 15 in Dublin’s Santa Rita Jail because of acute asthmatic respiratory insufficiency, according to the coroner’s office. In the wake of his death, family members and supporters alleged that he did not receive adequate, timely medical treatment and that his death could have been avoided.
More than two dozen of Martinez’s family members and friends gathered on the steps of the Rene C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse near Oakland’s Lake Merritt on Tuesday to announce the federal filing.
“What happened to my son was totally preventable,” Martinez’s mother, Tanti Martinez, said. “Yes, you’re incarcerated, but that doesn’t mean you should die in jail.”
Mario Martinez was jailed on charges of attempted murder, drug violations and possession of stolen property at the time. Family members said he was fighting the charges and maintained his innocence.
A judge had issued a court order for Martinez to receive medical treatment for his asthma and nasal polyps, but because of a lack of urgency, said civil rights attorney John Burris, “the problem got so big he couldn’t even breathe through his nose.”
Burris, who is representing Martinez’s family in the litigation, blamed the death on Corizon Health Inc., the jail’s contracted health provider named in the lawsuit. He said Martinez should have been placed in a medical ward rather than the jail’s normal housing unit.
“He could not breathe. He was passing out,” Burris said Tuesday, describing Martinez’s death. “His cellmates were asking for help. … There’s a real question of the adequacy of the medical care provided by Corizon.”
Jail deputies were notified that Martinez was having difficulty breathing at 10:58 a.m., and two nurses arrived three minutes later, according to Sgt. J.D. Nelson, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Paramedics were requested at 11:10 a.m., Nelson said, and Martinez was pronounced dead at 11:44 a.m.
He is survived by three children.
“Anytime there’s a death in custody, the county is very concerned,” said Donna Ziegler, county counsel. “Our heart goes out to the family for their loss.”
Corizon Health Inc. has faced a litany of allegations within and outside Alameda County. Last year, Corizon and the county settled a lawsuit for $8.3 million after an inmate, 50-year-old Martin Harrison, died in 2010 following a confrontation with sheriff’s deputies at the same jail where Martinez died.
Under terms of the settlement, Corizon agreed to implement staffing changes in jails throughout California. Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said when the settlement was announced that inmates would be better screened for pre-existing conditions.
Beyond Alameda County, Corizon has been shunned by the likes of New York City, which canceled its contract with the company at the Rikers Island jail complex after a city investigation found that some of its staffers had criminal histories and did not carefully watch suicidal or mentally ill inmates, two of whom died while unsupervised.
Corizon’s contract with Alameda County is set to expire this year, and officials have released a request for proposals to find a provider.
But agencies across the country have struggled to find replacements for Corizon, and Ziegler said, “There are certain risks inherent in the provision of health care.
“I challenge you to find any health care provider that provides services at this scale that hasn’t had outcomes that are undesirable.”