Inmate was ill before death

Man cut wrist to get medical aid for chest pains, died 1 day later

November 09, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

An inmate who died of an acute lung infection while in custody in Howard County told the nurse treating him for a suicide attempt that he had cut his wrist so that guards would send him to the hospital for chest pains that had afflicted him for a week.

Medical staff at the Howard County Detention Center instead gave Joseph Edward McGee, 38, Motrin in the infirmary, and guards put him on suicide watch alone in a cell, according to the police file released yesterday in response to a Sun records request. According to a medical examiner, he died in his cell one day later of acute bronchopneumonia, a type of pneumonia that comes on fast.

McGee, of Baltimore, was the most recent of three deaths at the detention center within six months of each other this year. Medical examiners ruled the other two deaths, those of Dean Cumbie and Wilfredo Hernandez, as suicides, and police did not find jail staff negligent in any of the cases.

County spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said that County Executive James N. Robey had not seen the file released yesterday and that the detention center's director, Melanie Pereira, had not finished her review of it. Pereira will brief Robey and the County Council on the three deaths next month.

"Although we're confident policies and procedures have been followed, there may be room for improvement," Goodman said.

Calls to the family's attorney, James Crawford Jr., were not returned yesterday, but as of Monday, Crawford said that he had not received the case file or the autopsy report.

At the time of Cumbie's and McGee's deaths they were under the supervision of jail medical staff, who are employees of private contractors. They also were either current or former drug addicts.

Cumbie arrived at the jail on charges of identity theft and drunken driving with several addictive painkillers and muscle relaxers in his possession. He left a suicide note written in ketchup April 1 that read "can't take pain anymore, medical knew I needed meds."

Pereira denied most of the Sun's request for more information about Cumbie's medical care, noting privacy laws. However, more details of McGee's treatment are included in detectives' public report because the inmate died of an illness, not suicide.

In July and August, McGee made three visits to St. Agnes Hospital for kidney stones. He had been prescribed antibiotics, but did not have them with him at the time of his arrest.

McGee first complained of chest pains at the state-run Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore no later than Aug. 27, eight days before his death and one day after he was arrested in Baltimore on a theft charge, according to police records.

When McGee was taken to Howard County Aug. 29 on a felony theft charge, he complained again of chest pain, but he attributed it to an accident in a police transport vehicle after his arrest in Baltimore. A detention center doctor ordered an X-ray and prescribed a moderate painkiller, Toradol.

Police records show that the X-ray and ultrasound, which were conducted the next day, found no broken ribs, clear lungs and a normal-sized heart. But within 48 hours, McGee's sister, Annie McGee, reported to a corrections officer that she had to cut off her visit with her brother because he was coughing up blood, according to police records.

Guards again sent McGee to the infirmary, where he was diagnosed with "congestion" and a bruised rib. He was given Tylenol, Pepto Bismol and Toradol and ordered back to his cell.

The next day, McGee slashed his wrist with a razor. He was sent to the infirmary again, where he was given Motrin.

McGee "informed the Infirmary nurse that he did so [cut his wrist] in order to go to the hospital," according to the police report. "He also stated that his intent was not to commit suicide."

Inmates on suicide watch are checked every 15 minutes. During one check, a guard observed McGee walking in his cell. During the next one, a guard saw him lying on the ground on his back. McGee told the guard, whose name is blacked out of the report, that he couldn't move his legs, but the guard later told police that McGee was moving his legs at the time.

The guard, however, did call a nurse, who said that she would finish an EKG on another patient and then respond. By the next check, McGee was dead.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Inmate's death

Timeline in death of Joseph Edward McGee: Aug. 26: Joseph Edward McGee is arrested in Baltimore and booked.

Aug. 27: McGee is committed to the Baltimore City Detention Center. An undated booking report states that McGee had "kidney stones and chest pains."

Aug. 29: McGee is transferred to the Howard County Detention Center. He complains of rib and chest pains.

Aug. 30: McGee sent to the infirmary.

Aug. 31: X-ray and ultrasound find nothing.

Sept. 2: McGee's sister visits and witnesses him coughing up blood. He is sent to the infirmary, where he complains of chest pain and is diagnosed with a rib bruise and "congestion."

Sept. 3: McGee cuts his left wrist and is sent to the infirmary again. He is placed on suicide watch.

Sept. 4: Guard sees McGee lying on his back, complaining that he can't move his legs. A nurse, who is finishing an EKG on another patient, is called. Before the nurse arrives, McGee is dead.

Sept. 5: Autopsy finds enlarged heart and "possibly pneumonia."

Oct. 13: Police learn that a medical examiner has listed the cause of death as "acute bronchopneumonia." Police close the case.

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