Suit: Woman's Prison Death "Unusual Punishment"

Patricia Pollock, 25, died in a Montgomery County prison

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    Patricia Pollock died while awaiting trial in 2011, in custody of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. (Image courtesy of Jonathan H. Feinberg.)

    Patricia Pollock lay dying from a heart condition in the Montgomery County prison, so weak she couldn't drink liquids without help and so distressed she stripped off all her clothes. But somehow, a private contractor failed to catch or treat Pollock's illness, which made breathing a struggle, caused her organs to fail, and eventually took her life.

    Or at least, that's the claim of civil-rights attorney Jonathan Feinberg. He is representing Pollock's estate, which filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County and Correctional Medical Care, a company hired to provide medical services to the prison.

    The suit, filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in May, claims that CMC's care was so poor that Pollock's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was violated.

    This isn't the first time that CMC, based in Blue Bell, Pa., has been in the news. In April, New York's Attorney General office said it was investigating the company, which has also operated in that state.

    Before then, New York's Commission of Correction found wrongdoing by the company in the deaths of some inmates.

    An attorney for CMC said the company provides quality care.

    The cause of Pollock's 2011 death, an autopsy report shows, was a heart condition known as "acute fulminant verrucous endocarditis." According to the suit, CMC treated Pollock for drug withdrawal instead, and by the time she was transferred to an outside hospital and received diagnostic testing, it was too late.

    Pollock was 25, in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility awaiting trial because she was unable to pay 10 percent of her $10,000 bail. She faced charges for alleged retail theft, possession of drug paraphernalia and a DUI.

    Feinberg, of the law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, said CMC knew that Pollock had a history of using intravenous drugs. So it should have been able to diagnose her heart condition, as it often afflicts such users, he said.

    "This is a condition that, if treated properly, should not result in death," Feinberg said. "The fact that she ended up dead obviously shows that there was a very significant breakdown in the way care was provided."

    Timothy Myers, an attorney for CMC, said the company's job is difficult because inmates often come into prison with serious medical problems.

    And in this case, Myers said it was even tougher because Pollock initially denied her drug use.

    "So it makes it harder to diagnose problems when the patient is not honest," he said, adding that it's "just not feasible" to "evaluate and inspect ... every inch of an inmate's body in order to make some kind of diagnosis preliminarily."

    CMC was paid about $4 million annually for its work in Montgomery County.

    Trouble in New York, too

    Critics of the company say it has a pattern of being at least partially at fault in the deaths of prisoners.

    New York's Commission of Correction, which examines inmates' deaths, found that CMC has sometimes failed to follow its own regulations and put prisoners in danger over the last few years.

    A Correctional Medical Care nurse "clearly left his patient in an emergent life-threatening status without appropriate medical attention," one commission report noted.

    Another report stated that the death of 60-year-old inmate Joaquin Rodriguez "may have been prevented had he received timely medical care and received proper supervision" from CMC. The commission said the Monroe County jail should terminate its contract with the company as a result.
    CMC did not respond to several requests for comment on the commission reports or the New York Attorney General's investigation.

    The Attorney General's office would not explain why it is scrutinizing CMC, but it did request a copy of Pollock's lawsuit.

    Prisoners' rights advocates say that private correctional companies, such as CMC, put profits before people.

    Feinberg alleges that CMC faced a "powerful financial disincentive" to conduct diagnostic testing on inmates or send them to an outside medical provider.

    "The fact that those two things cost money, that they're expensive and that those have to be paid for by this private health provider, do raise serious questions," he said.

    Myers said that the belief that CMC has such a disincentive "is utterly and completely false."
    Montgomery County spokesman Frank Custer declined to comment on the suit, explaining that the county's attorneys "would not presume to comment on the case since we will not be defending it."
    Dr. Margaret Carrillo, CMC's medical director at the time of Pollock's death, is also named in the suit. She, too, took a pass on commenting.

    New contract

    CMC is no longer providing medical services for the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.
    Since 2012, PrimeCare Medical, Inc. has done that job.

    Custer would not provide details about the county's decision to switch contractors.

    Though CMC is based in Pennsylvania, it does not currently provide medical services for any prisons or jails in the state, according to its website.

    That's not for lack of trying, though. CMC placed a bid to provide inmate health care in Philadelphia starting this year, but failed.

    The company continues to work inside several New York county jails.

    And some of CMC's old staff is working for PrimeCare in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, including its former medical director, Dr. Carrillo.


    This story was reported through a news coverage partnership betweeen NBC10.com and NewsWorks.org