Lawsuit filed in death of inmate at Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center

·4 min read

Jul. 24—The family of one of the people who died while in custody of the Metropolitan Detention Center last year has filed a lawsuit against Bernalillo County, the jail and the medical provider and staff alleging medical malpractice and negligence led to his death.

Samuel Bryant, 46, died from the toxic effects of methamphetamine with contributing factors of opiate withdrawal, according to an autopsy report. The Office of the Medical Investigator determined his death was an accident.

He was one of nine people in jail custody to die in the course of a year — a dramatic spike over previous years. While the causes of death varied, six appear to have occurred while inmates were detoxing from drugs or alcohol or in medical units — all under the care of medical contractor Centurion Detention Health Care. None of the deaths were from COVID-19.

Bryant's death is similar to that of 38-year-old Joleen Nez, who also died from the toxic effects of methamphetamine, according to an autopsy report recently released to the Journal. OMI determined her death also was an accident.

A jail spokeswoman did not answer questions about whether anyone was disciplined regarding either death or whether any jail policies have since been changed.

In an email, spokeswoman Julia Rivera said "MDC will not provide a comments on any pending litigation."

An attorney for Centurion did not respond to a call or email from the Journal seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Last spring, after the Journal published an article on the increase in deaths at the jail, the county said it "expressed concern to Centurion over staff vacancies and continuity of care" and asked the company to respond. Instead, Centurion terminated its contract more than a year early.

Parrish Collins, the attorney representing Bryant's estate, has filed numerous lawsuits against Centurion, the state Department of Corrections and county jails regarding medical malpractice behind bars.

"I think there's definitely a pattern, it's more than just (deaths while in) detox or any of that," Collins said. "It's a pattern of gross neglect, gross medical neglect. I think it runs throughout the state, the jails and prisons."

He said in Bryant's case the medical and jail staff should have taken care of him.

"He was on therapeutic watch but they weren't watching him despite the fact that he was screaming in pain," Collins said. "The fact that they documented that he was screaming and they did nothing, I don't even know how to describe that level of callousness."

Bryant was arrested on a warrant for failing to appear in a domestic violence case on Sept. 22 and housed in a single occupancy cell in the jail's detox unit.

His stepmother told the Journal in March that he had a "heart of gold" and was a very good man who got "hooked on drugs." She said he had visited her hours before he was arrested.

Correctional officers checked on him around 11:30 p.m. and saw that he had vomited on the floor, according to incident reports released to the Journal in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request.

The guards said they asked if he needed anything and he said, "I'm just detoxing."

For the next couple of hours he could be heard banging on the wall and yelling. Around 2:30 a.m. he was seen lying on his stomach. About 50 minutes later when a detox nurse went to check his vitals he was unresponsive.

At 4:06 a.m. Bryant was declared dead.

According to the lawsuit filed against Bernalillo County, the jail, Centurion and individual employees, staff "knew of Bryant's history of heroin usage and that he was in withdrawal and with wanton, willful and deliberate indifference to his severe and emergent medical condition failed to take action within its authority to protect the health of Mr. Bryant." The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants "ignored Mr. Bryant's screams throughout the night leaving him to suffer severe physical and psychological pain."

The suit asks for compensatory and punitive damages.

Nez, who died on Jan. 31, had been arrested on a warrant for failing to appear in a littering case. She had been charged with littering after an officer saw her kick over a cup and bowl and then — after the officer asked her to pick it up — she only picked up the bowl.

She was booked into a detox unit on Jan. 29 and, according to incident reports, another inmate found her unconscious and not breathing around noon.

She was brought to the hospital, where she died. OMI said her brain and kidney were damaged due to her organs not getting enough blood and oxygen over a period of time.

The Journal could not reach Nez's family.

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