Wash. DOC faces $10M lawsuit over inmate cancer death
Kenny Williams died of metastasized breast cancer in June 2019 after DOC failed to provide treatment
By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE —Two years ago, Kenny Williams died at Monroe Correctional Complex after an excruciating battle with cancer that went untreated despite his repeated pleas to the state Department of Corrections.
His case has been cited by a state watchdog report as a strikingly egregious example of the DOC's repeated failures to provide lifesaving health care for people locked up in state prisons.
Now, Williams' family is suing the DOC in King County Superior Court, alleging "systemic negligence" led to his suffering and death — and seeking $10 million in damages.
"We're filing it for justice for Kenny," said Dee Johnson, Williams' widow, in an interview. "If we don't accomplish anything else, we're hoping no one else has to go through this pain and suffering."
A DOC spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but pointed to systemwide health care policy and training changes the department has made since Williams' death. The agency also received a $39 million boost for its health care staff and services in the budget recently passed by the state Legislature.
Williams, 63, died in June 2019 of breast cancer that had metastasized into his bones after DOC failed to provide chemotherapy that could have saved his life.
"On paper, this is one of the worst cases of medical neglect that we have ever seen," said Johnson's attorney, Ed Budge, whose Seattle law firm, Budge & Heipt, specializes in wrongful prison and jail deaths.
"Mr. Williams' death was not the result of a good-faith error in judgment by a well-meaning medical provider. Rather, it was the result of systemic negligence that permeated the DOC healthcare system, causing many patients with life-threatening illnesses to suffer," the lawsuit alleges.
His treatment — or lack thereof — was documented in a scathing November 2019 report by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, which investigates complaints by incarcerated people and their families.
That report described how efforts by Williams and his family to get his cancer diagnosed and treated were met with delays and an indifferent bureaucracy. Many of its findings are echoed in the new lawsuit.
Williams was a talented guitarist and songwriter, playing his Fender Stratocaster in bands including Crazy Texas Gypsies, opening for acts such as ZZ Top and Delbert McClinton.
He entered prison after pleading guilty in 2016 to two counts of second-degree assault for shooting a man after a night of drinking in Kent. He had been scheduled for release this fall.
But Williams had the misfortune to fall ill with cancer in a state prison system that has been faulted in multiple ombuds office investigations for failing to adequately care for people with cancer and other serious diseases.
In March 2018, a nurse discovered a lump underneath the skin of Williams' left nipple. But the nurse and other prison medical staff did not follow up or schedule further evaluation.
Within three months, Williams, who had a family history of cancer, was reporting knifelike pain stabbing into his left breast. A DOC medical staffer, alarmed at the growing mass, said Williams needed "urgent" scans, including a mammogram and ultrasound, the lawsuit says. But the scans didn't happen for more than a month.
The pattern of delay continued, with urgent procedures to diagnose and treat the cancer put off by weeks or months, according to the ombud's report and the lawsuit.
It took nearly six months for DOC to arrange for Williams to be seen by an oncologist, who had said in August 2018 that Williams needed "to start chemotherapy ASAP."
Williams never received chemotherapy. Frustrated, he filed written grievances with prison staff, begging for treatment and for help with the worsening pain in his chest and ribs.
In one, he wrote that the oncologist had said he needed "aggressive chemotherapy" as soon as possible.
"This was now seven weeks ago ... and I have not been given any reasons for the delay. I am dying, what is holding up the treatment that will save my life?"
The response from a DOC grievance coordinator was coldly bureaucratic, informing Williams that his request was not properly signed and dated, and that the time limit on filing a grievance was 20 days.
"The grievance coordinator did not take any steps to investigate or address the serious treatment delay about which Mr. Williams complained. As a result, the untreated cancer continued to spread, and Mr. Williams continued to suffer," the lawsuit states.
Williams' family also repeatedly contacted Monroe prison officials, asking them to intervene and get Williams the treatment he needed. "They just kind of brush you off. They did nothing," said Johnson.
By November 2018, the cancer had spread throughout his body. In severe pain and not wanting to prolong his suffering, Williams signed a form declining treatment. "In fact, there is no indication DOC ever offered Mr. Williams any treatment for his cancer," the lawsuit states.
Williams died on June 12, 2019, leaving behind Johnson and their four children, who are all named as beneficiaries of his estate in the lawsuit.
In a response to the ombud's report about his death, DOC acknowledged "significant process failures" and noted the primary medical provider for Williams resigned.
Julia Barnett, medical director at the Monroe prison, was fired for misconduct in April 2019 after an internal probe faulted her care and supervision related to several deaths of men incarcerated there.
At a news conference Thursday introducing new Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange, Gov. Jay Inslee said improvements in prison health care are a priority. "I am very committed to having appropriate medical care for people," he said.
A budget bill on his desk should provide some help. The 2021-23 spending plan approved by the Legislature provides DOC with an increase of 161 full-time staff and $39 million to improve health care delivery, DOC spokesperson Susan Biller said in an email.
The money will pay for a host of improvements, including off-site medical transportation, more nurses and quality assurance, and fund initial steps to convert DOC's paper medical records to an electronic system.
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