Mentally ill Pa. inmate refuses to take medication

The inmate's erratic and aggressive behavior is so extreme that medical prison staff seek court order to forcibly medicate him

By Riley Yates
The Morning Call

EASTON, Pa. — Since 46-year-old Jorge Zamora-Rodriguez entered Northampton County Prison more than a month ago, he has been a problem inmate — so much so that when the mentally-ill man is moved in the jail, he requires five guards to keep watch on him, according to testimony.

Zamora-Rodriguez's erratic and assaultive behavior is so bad, the prison's health care provider says, that it has turned to the court system for help, seeking a judge's order permitting officials to forcibly medicate him with the anti-psychotics that he refuses to take.

It's a case that pits the prison's need for safety against Zamora-Rodriguez's constitutional right to privacy, which recognizes that inmates have a limited right to refuse medications that a jail thinks are in their interest.

"Part of that right to privacy is that we don't necessarily have to subject ourselves to medication," said Zamora-Rodriguez's public defender, Matthew Goodrich. "That's been found by the United States Supreme Court."

On Friday, Judge Emil Giordano heard testimony from PrimeCare Medical on its bid to force medication on Zamora-Rodriguez by restraining him and injecting it into him. The company's attorney, S. Baker Kensinger, told Giordano it is necessary "to get him to a state where he is no longer a danger to himself and others."

Giordano called the question a novel one for him, and said he needed to research the request before ruling. He said he will issue a decision by Tuesday afternoon.

Zamora-Rodriguez, of West Palm Beach, Fla., has been incarcerated since March 6, a day after he was arrested at a Travel Inn in Bushkill Township. Police said he had threatened to "wipe out the whole complex," and he was charged with terroristic threats.

According to PrimeCare's filing, Zamora-Rodriguez is suffering from "active psychosis" and has a diagnosis of either schizophrenic or bipolar disorder. His mental state has declined over the course of his incarceration, and the prison will be seeking his commitment to a secure mental health facility, the filing said.

In the meantime, Zamora-Rodriguez has shown "unpredictable and erratic behavior," assaulted a corrections officer on April 3, and has acknowledged drinking water out of the toilet of his cell, the filing said.

When Zamora-Rodriguez was evaluated by medical staff inside the prison, he required shackles, a suicide smock and a spit guard on his face, the filing said.

Zamora-Rodriguez was in court for Friday's hearing, and he sat quietly in a wheelchair where he had been placed for restraint, deputy sheriffs standing nearby. Goodrich argued the case is not the emergency that PrimeCare is calling it.

Zamora-Rodriguez is already segregated in a cell by himself. Goodrich said Zamora-Rodriguez can be maintained there without forced medication until a placement at a mental facility becomes available.

Goodrich said Zamora-Rodriguez has proven calmer over the past few days. It isn't novel for prisoners to be upset about being jailed, or to have mental health issues that make them difficult to handle, Goodrich said.

"The proper place for him is a mental health facility," Goodrich said.

Issues of forced medication and force-feeding come up at prisons from time to time. In 2013 in the same courtroom as Friday's hearing, a 42-year-old Northampton County Prison inmate, Tyre Smith, was brought before a judge after refusing to eat in the jail, claiming his food was being poisoned by staff.

Smith, who was 6-foot-7-inches tall and weighed less than 150 pounds, was losing 1 to 2 pounds a day, a health clinician testified. But at the hearing, he agreed to begin eating again, provided outside food was brought to him.

Smith was ordered transferred to the state prison system, which has better facilities for dealing with mental illness, until a bed opened for him at Norristown State Hospital's forensic psychiatric unit.

Copyright 2016 The Morning Call

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