DA: Pa. prison's medical staff's response in inmate death 'woefully inadequate'

A coroner said medical staff did not recognize for more than 25 minutes that the inmate had stopped breathing

By Joseph Kohut
The Times-Tribune

LACKAWANNA COUNTY, Pa. — Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell referred an investigation into the March death of a county prison inmate to the Department of Justice to probe if there were federal or civil rights violations.

The investigation centers on the March 24 death of David Dewald, 43, of Bloomsburg, who was a federal inmate at the jail. Dewald died at Geisinger Community Medical Center after guards tried to get him out of his cell and he became "unresponsive," Powell said Tuesday in a statement.

Powell called the actions of the jail's medical staff "woefully inadequate" but not to a level he could charge a crime under state law.

"A thorough review of all the evidence in this case shows corrections staff followed all procedures and protocols in extracting Mr. Dewald from his cell, but that the response by the nurses who attended to him after he became unresponsive was woefully inadequate," Powell said. "There simply was no sense of urgency."

Lackawanna County Coroner Tim Rowland said Dewald died of cardiac dysrhythmia experienced after the struggle to get him out of his cell. The manner of death was ruled accidental.

Medical staff did not recognize for more than 25 minutes that Dewald had stopped breathing, Rowland said.

Powell said Dewald was treated for mental illness but was deprived of psychiatric medication since Feb. 28. He heard voices in his head and told that to prison guards. He also threatened to harm himself.

On the day he died, guards spent an hour trying to get Dewald to leave his cell before "forcibly extracting" him. Investigators reviewed video of the incident and Dewald "consistently resisted removal."

Dewald died tragically, Powell said, but there is "no evidence of criminal intent on the part of anyone involved in the incident."

Powell, a member of the county prison board, will recommend reforms at the jail, including policies for handling mentally ill prisoners, reviews of medical staff certifications and ensuring that inmates get the medication they need for mental illness.

The jail's medical provider, Moosic-based Correctional Care Inc., has come under criticism several times since it contracted with the county in 2004. Its contract expires in January.

Attempts to reach Dr. Edward Zaloga, Correctional Care's president and chief medical officer, were unsuccessful.

Commissioner Debi Domenick, a former public defender who has argued that inmate medical care must improve, said she could not speak specifically to Dewald's case but Powell's description is "spot on of the care generally rendered by" Correctional Care.

Four firms, including Correctional Care, submitted proposals to provide inmate medical services when the current contract expires. The other three are Wellpath of Nashville, Tennessee; CBH Medical of Blue Bell; and Armor Correctional Health Services, Inc., of Miami, Florida.

The county will announce who will get the contract on Oct. 21 during a prison board meeting, Domenick said.

A lawsuit against the county is likely. Dewald's estate has retained a lawyer, county spokesman Joseph D'Arienzo said.

"We cannot comment on pending litigation or potential litigation," he said.


©2020 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

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