Lawsuit: Texas prison too understaffed to take inmate to hospital for flesh-eating infection
The lawsuit asks for the Texas prison system to step up their training so officers know to ensure adequate medical treatment in the future
By Keri Blakinger
HOUSTON — An inmate is suing the Texas prison system after officials allegedly failed to adequately treat his flesh-eating bacteria infection for a week, letting the wound fester as they refused to take him to the hospital because the unit was too understaffed.
In a claim filed this month in federal court, Harold Millican accuses the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the warden at the Gist State Jail of “callous indifference,” alleging they wouldn’t offer “proper care” or take him to the hospital for his foul-smelling arm infection until he went into shock and fell unconscious.
Though the lawsuit - which also names the warden as a defendant - asks for at least $200,000, it also asks for the Texas prison system to step up their training so officers know to ensure adequate medical treatment in the future.
“They sat up there and watched him suffer,” said Allie Booker, the Houston-based attorney who’s representing Millican. “How can you allow someone to go through that?”
To advocates and experts, the case underscores the problems that stem from the chronic understaffing that’s long plagued Texas lock-ups, but some say it also highlights the need for independent oversight of the state’s troubled prison system.
“What independent oversight will do for these types of situations is it will provide a way to figure out what is going on with the system so it can be corrected so these incidents don’t happen over and over again,” said Jennifer Erschabek of Texas Inmate Families Association. “We need the ability for someone independent to look and make the system better.”
Texas prison spokesman Jeremy Desel said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
The Montgomery County man at the center of the case was sentenced to six months in state jail for a drug conviction in 2016, the latest in a long string of charges stemming back to at least 2001.
Not long after he was sent to the Beaumont facility, he fell and hurt his arm while at a work assignment, Booker said. But the injury didn’t heal properly, and instead he developed MRSA - a methicillin-resistant staph infection - according to his attorney.
The 37-year-old inmate told prison staff - and his mother made calls on his behalf, too. He was sent to the prison infirmary, but never taken for outside treatment because there was “no one available to take him to the hospital,” according to the lawsuit.
In the meantime, the abscess turned yellow and green, giving off a foul odor as it ate away at the skin.
Roughly a week later, he was finally taken to the hospital after he passed out in his dorm, according to his attorney.
There, he learned that he’d blacked out because the infected abscess was “poisoning his system” as it gnawed into his arm, leaving him disfigured and “permanently handicapped.”
Millican had to go through multiple surgeries and other treatment all because of “flesh-eating bacteria that was able to develop because TDCJ refused necessary treatment.”
And, he alleges, they should have known better.
“TDCJ knew that allowing an abscess that was yellow and green in color, growing, painful, damaging the skin, eating away at the skin and muscle of Plaintiff, and that had a foul odor was dangerous and or harmful to his health,” the suit alleges. “TDCJ knew or should have known that the denial of treatment for a wound such as this was an act that was deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff’s health and safety.”
That alleged lack of concern for the ailing prisoner, according to court filings, stems from a unit culture that tolerates an “atmosphere of lawlessness” and offers training so inadequate it amounts to deliberate indifference.
The claim comes in the wake of reports about long-standing staffing concerns at Texas lock-ups. Last year, the department’s turnover rate soared to 28 percent, and across the state more than 14 percent of officer jobs were unfilled. In October 2017, the Gist unit vacancy hovered around 34 percent.
After boosting recruitment efforts and offering more than $9 million in hiring bonuses, the Texas prison system made subtle progress in attacking the problem, getting numbers down to just under 27 percent vacancy at Gist and 13.5 percent systemwide as of July.
The lawsuit comes just as prison watchdogs and inmate advocates are voicing their support for a freshly filed state bill that would create outside oversight of the state’s 104 prisons.
“What independent oversight does is catch the problems before they turn into lawsuits or scandals or injuries or deaths,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice consultant who teaches at UT-Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. “It’s meant to be preventative.”
Doug Smith, a a senior policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, concurred.
“They dropped the ball,” said Smith, who does not have any direct knowledge of the case. “This is exactly the type of instance where you absolutely need independent oversight to review how that ball got dropped to look at staffing patterns to be proactive about keeping this from ever happening again.”