Inmate's death shines spotlight on prison medical treatment
An Oregon State Penitentiary inmate suffering from mental illness was left to die of pneumonia after staff ignored his requests for medical attention, according to a lawsuit filed against the state Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit seeks $15 million in damages. It was filed by Stephen Brown, the brother of Michael Barton, who died in 2018 while in custody. The Jan. 24 lawsuit was filed in Marion County Circuit Court. It accuses the state of negligence, wrongful death, civil rights violations and disability discrimination.
Bryan Dawson, Brown's attorney, said the case could reveal bigger problems in how the corrections department handles the spread of influenza. "We have some understanding that this is a systematic problem," Dawson said.
According to the complaint, Barton was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, brain injury, hallucinations and other mental health conditions. Because of his conditions, Barton struggled with daily tasks, such as turning off a water faucet in his cell or opening his unlocked door, according to the complaint.
The complaint said that in January 2018, Barton came down with influenza, which developed into pneumonia. His condition worsened and he became too weak to walk or stand without assistance. Barton "repeatedly wept and begged prison personnel to be admitted to and treated in the infirmary" but was denied, the complaint said.
The complaint said prison officials wouldn't let Barton into the infirmary because he would make others sick. An internal department investigation, cited in the complaint, concluded that admitting Barton would have allowed better monitoring and treatment but the infirmary was "extremely ill-constructed for admitted influenza patients."
"Flu is something that just runs rampant through the prisons," said Dawson. "How can you have a facility that can't treat something that leads to a death like this?"
Barton's condition continued to worsen, yet prison personnel didn't take his vital signs and his "despair and lifelessness" were treated as "defiance" by staff, according to the complaint.
In February 2018, Barton was taken to Salem Hospital, where he was diagnosed with cardiac arrest, septic shock, acute kidney failure and other conditions. The complaint describes him as "barely alive." A day later he was pronounced dead at age 54.
Disability Rights' report
Barton, a Medford resident, was sentenced to prison after entering into a plea agreement for a 2016 bank robbery. He was scheduled to be released in November of 2020, according to the complaint.
Dawson said Barton's brother initially wasn't aware of the alleged circumstances that lead to his death last year, when Disability Rights Oregon released its investigative report. The July 2019 report specifically focused on Barton's death. It called on the department to hire an independent prison health expert to review Barton's death and recommend improvements.
Department spokeswoman Jennifer Black declined to comment, citing the litigation.
Located in Salem, the Oregon State Penitentiary is the state's only maximum-security facility with a capacity of about 2,000. Federal Bureau of Prisons guidelines recommend that inmates and staff receive flu vaccinations. The lawsuit said that Barton wasn't given a flu vaccination.
In 2019, the department settled a lawsuit brought by the family of an inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville who died of complications from the flu contracted during an outbreak. Willamette Week, which reported the settlement, quoted Black saying that all incarcerated individuals who wanted a flu shot would be offered one.
On Monday, Jan. 27, the department tweeted that all visitations at the Wilsonville prison were canceled until further notice because of a flu outbreak.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @jakethomas2009.