LONGVIEW — Amy Lynn Cowling was 33, she had three children, and her first grandchild was born a day after she died in an East Texas jail — slumped over her bed, clutching a bottle of Diet Dr Pepper, after a day of wailing and seizures.
Ms. Cowling was pulled over on Christmas Eve for speeding and arrested for outstanding warrants on minor charges. She was bipolar and methadone-dependent and took a raft of medications each day. For the five days she was in Gregg County Jail, Ms. Cowling and her family pleaded with officials to give her the medicines that sat in her purse in the jail’s storage room. They never did.
Ms. Cowling’s death is the most recent at Sheriff Maxey Cerliano’s Gregg County Jail in Longview. Since 2005, nine inmates have died there — most were attributed to health conditions like cancer, diabetes and stomach ulcers — far more than at other facilities its size. Bowie County Jail, in East Texas on the Arkansas border, reported five deaths in the same period, as did Brazoria County Jail, south of Houston on the Gulf Coast. In Williamson County in Central Texas near Austin, the jail reported just two deaths.
Interviews with prison experts and people with firsthand experience with the Gregg County lockup and its medical staff, as well as a review of scores of public documents, reveal a troubled local jail where staff turnover is high and inmates routinely complain about conditions. Criminal justice advocates say the situation in Gregg County is not unique; it is representative of systemic problems that plague local jails statewide.
Sheriff Cerliano defends the medical treatment in his jail and said he does his best to weed out bad jailers. “It’s only about doing the right thing,” he said.
Vicki Bankhead never went a day without talking to Ms. Cowling, her daughter and best friend. “I miss hearing her voice,” Ms. Bankhead said, sobbing. Ms. Cowling became a mother at age 15. She had become addicted to prescription pills and was found guilty in 2001 of possessing a fraudulent prescription. She struggled to keep a job.
Although Ms. Cowling had been clean for several years and was getting treatment at a methadone clinic, Ms. Bankhead said, her daughter had other health problems, including bipolar disorder, heart troubles and a failing kidney. “Amy needed her medication to stay alive,” she said. “That’s why I was begging them to help her repeatedly.”
Public records show that Ms. Cowling told Gregg County Jail officials that she had high blood pressure, arthritis and only one kidney. She reported that she took Seroquel to treat bipolar disorder and that she had been receiving methadone treatment for a decade — but neither of those drugs is allowed in the jail.
State standards require only that jails provide treatment according to the facility’s health care plan. Dr. Lewis A. Browne, the county health administrator and jail doctor since 1992, decides which drugs are allowed. Drugs like Seroquel and methadone, he said, are often traded among inmates for illicit favors.
Gregg County officials said that Ms. Cowling had received appropriate substitute medications.
Reports on her case submitted to the Texas attorney general’s office show that Ms. Cowling began having “seizure activity” while she was in the facility. The morning before she died, a jail nurse called Dr. Browne to report that Ms. Cowling was “hollering and uncooperative.” Dr. Browne told the nurse to give Ms. Cowling a dose of the antipsychotic drug Haldol. When a nurse called Dr. Browne later to report that Ms. Cowling was yelling again, he ordered more Haldol and put her on suicide watch. Ms. Cowling was booked on a Friday morning, and a jailer discovered her dead just after midnight on Wednesday.
Precisely what caused Ms. Cowling’s death remains unknown. A preliminary autopsy was inconclusive. Her family has retained a lawyer.
County officials contend that Ms. Cowling’s death was not their fault. She was not honest with them about all of her health problems, said Robert Davis, a lawyer for the county. “I absolutely do not believe that the jail or jail staff contributed to this inmate’s death whatsoever,” Mr. Davis said.
Sheriff Cerliano, however, concedes that not everything went according to the jail’s policies. After Ms. Cowling’s death, he conducted an investigation that he said showed that one jailer falsified observation logs that night. He fired five jailers and a sixth resigned. (Not all of the firings were related to Ms. Cowling’s death, he said, but were for conduct discovered during the investigation.) Two of the jailers were arrested for falsifying government documents.
Still, he said, the jail staff followed medical protocol in caring for Ms. Cowling. “We do everything we can to take care of inmates,” he said.
Since 2008, Gregg County inmates have filed more than 20 complaints with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards about conditions in the lockup. Most of the complaints were health-care-related; inmates said they could not get medicine and did not receive timely medical attention. An inmate who hanged himself in the jail in 2009 had complained that among many other grievances, he was not allowed medication he had been prescribed on the outside and had not been seen by a doctor.
In letters responding to nearly all the complaints, Adan Muñoz, the commission’s executive director, wrote, “The Texas Commission on Jail Standards does not question the professional opinion of medical personnel.”
Inmates have sued Sheriff Cerliano and Dr. Browne at least twice since 2005, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated by the jail’s deliberate indifference to their medical needs. In both cases, the courts found that Dr. Browne and the jail had attempted to provide adequate care.
Dr. Browne, who has his own family medical practice in Longview, is paid more than $100,000 per year to act as the jail doctor and director of the county health authority. He said that inmate health care was “the toughest medical situation to deal with.” Inmates are often uncooperative and dishonest about their health conditions, he said, and many are drug addicts. Adding to the challenge is that it is hard to retain medical staff, Dr. Browne said.
Medical staff members at the jail are not the only ones with a high turnover rate; records from the sheriff’s department show that in 2009 and 2010, more than 40 percent of the 167 jail employees either quit or were fired.
Sheriff Cerliano said the pay is low for jailers and that they have to go through months of training, pass drug screenings and work in challenging situations.
Lt. David Drosche, who works in the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office and is president of the Texas Jail Association, agreed that retaining jailers is difficult but said that a 40 percent turnover rate is “extremely high.” The higher turnover, he said, results in more inexperienced jailers.
County lockups in Texas are accountable to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Before Ms. Cowling’s death, the Gregg County Jail had passed every commission inspection for the last five years. Within weeks after she died, the commission, which reviews county jail deaths, decided the jail was in compliance with state standards.
But the commission does not require that jails meet specific health care criteria, only that they have medical plans on file. It also doesn’t keep track of jail staff turnover.
Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for improved jail conditions, said better health care standards and monitoring of data like staff turnover could help prevent more deaths like Ms. Cowling’s. From January 2005 to September 2009, more than 280 inmates died from illnesses in Texas county jails.
“One of the chief factors playing into mistreatment or neglect would be ill-trained, inexperienced staff,” she said. But with the state budget crunch, pressing the jail standards commission to provide additional oversight is a tough sell, Ms. Claitor said.
Sheriff Cerliano said his jailers already receive more training than is required by state standards and that the medical staff provides the best care possible. Ms. Cowling’s death was unfortunate, he said, but it does not mean that wholesale changes are needed in the way jails are regulated.
“We do have inmates that come in sick,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us to try to do the best we can.”