Inmate's death queried

Family believes man wasn't given care

January 12, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore County police investigate the death of Philip E. Wheeler four days after his arrival at the county detention center, members of his family are raising questions about the medical treatment he received.

Wheeler, 44, of Baltimore, collapsed inside a cell in the jail's medical unit the evening of Dec. 29. He had been transferred to the medical area that day.

But his wife and son said they have heard that Wheeler was sick for days, and that he may not have been promptly treated by corrections officers or the medical workers under contract to provide health care at the jail.

Carolyn Cozart Wheeler said a woman identifying herself as a jail employee left a telephone message alleging that her husband's health complaints were not taken seriously.

"He had been complaining three days before he died that he was sick," Wheeler said the caller told her. "He was coughing up blood, and they wouldn't take him to the hospital."

Additionally, an inmate who was in a medical cell next to Wheeler's said in a letter to The Sun that a corrections officer and health care workers took too long to respond to Wheeler's moans and yells in the minutes before he died Dec. 29.

County officials say that no delay occurred and that they have no records of a days-long bloody cough. The medical incident was handled properly, officials said this week.

According to the county, a corrections officer and two health workers entered Wheeler's cell two to three minutes after being alerted by another inmate Dec. 29 that Wheeler had collapsed and was moaning.

The corrections officer had to be summoned from another part of the jail, where he had gone to retrieve trash bags.

After a brief examination, the medical workers decided to call for outside help. Officials say it took 18 minutes after a call to 911 for paramedics to reach Wheeler - nine minutes to get to the jail, and another nine minutes to reach the medical unit.

Wheeler was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy is being performed, but results are not yet available.

Wheeler said her husband was a heroin user and may have been going through withdrawal. She said he was not ill when he arrived at the jail.

A corrections official said he considered the response times acceptable.

"I have not found anything that would give me any cause for alarm," said Deputy Corrections Administrator James O'Neill. "From an operations viewpoint, I don't see anything we could do differently."

County and police officials disclosed Wheeler's death after receiving inquiries from The Sun. The county has refused to release its report on the incident, citing medical confidentiality and the police investigation.

Health care at the jail is provided by a private company, Prison Health Services Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., which charges the county $7.42 per inmate per day. The company signed a five-year, $16.3 million contract in June.

County officials say that, on average, two to three inmates a year die at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

Larry Pomeroy, a spokesman for Prison Health Services, said the company is reviewing the death, a step he called routine. He would not comment on specifics of the case.

Likewise, the police investigation into Wheeler's death is routine, said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a department spokeswoman.

"We investigate all in-custody deaths," she said, "and there is an ongoing investigation handled by our internal affairs section."

Wheeler had been wanted on a warrant for violating probation stemming from a 1998 shoplifting case and turned himself in at the jail Dec. 25.

He was moved to the medical cell about 2 p.m. Dec. 29 after complaining about a cough, but his vital signs were normal at the time, officials said.

Wheeler's son, Phillip E. Wheeler Jr., said he would like more answers about his father's death.

"No one gave me an explanation of anything," he said. "I wanted to know exactly what happened, but I don't know."

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