Nevada officials sued over care at state prison

By Henry Weinstein and Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action suit against the governor of Nevada and other state officials Thursday, alleging that they had failed to rectify “a pervasive pattern of grossly inadequate medical care” at the state’s maximum-security prison in Ely.

“These deprivations are so extreme that they subject all the men confined there to constant significant risk of serious injury, medical harm [and] premature death,” according to the suit filed in federal court in Reno by ACLU lawyers from Washington and Nevada.

In December, a Los Angeles Times investigation based on records and interviews described how prisoners at Ely had been denied care for heart problems, diabetes and other serious medical conditions. Last year, a nurse was fired after complaining about substandard care at the facility, which she said led to one inmate needlessly dying of gangrene.

At the time, the ACLU submitted to prison officials a scathing report about inadequate medical care at the facility written by Dr. William K. Noel of Boise, Idaho.

Noel, who had reviewed medical records of 35 inmates at the prison, concluded that the conditions at Ely amounted to “the grossest possible medical malpractice, and the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering that I have ever encountered in my 35 years of practice.”

After Noel’s report, ACLU lawyers said they met with state officials seeking swift change, but none came.

Amy Fettig of the ACLU’s National Prison Project said the lawsuit was necessary because “the state just hasn’t shown a sense of urgency in addressing the crisis at Ely. They assured us that they were going to carry out far-reaching reforms to address the problems . . . but that was months ago, and they’ve made only half-hearted gestures to fix their broken system.”

Greg Smith, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said prison officials had been attempting to respond to the ACLU’s concerns and were blindsided by the suit.

“Frankly, we’re shocked by this development,” Smith said. Nonetheless, he said, prison officials think the medical care at Ely is “more than adequate.”

A spokesman for Gov. Jim Gibbons did not comment on the suit.

The suit names six inmates as plaintiffs but was filed on behalf of every inmate at the prison, including 60 men on death row. It alleges that Nevada officials have violated the inmates’ right to due process and have inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on them.

Among the plaintiffs is inmate David Riker, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, conditions “which cause debilitating and chronic pain,” the suit said.

A doctor who examined Riker in August 2006 prescribed medications and X-rays, but the prison’s medical staff did not follow her orders, the suit said.

Instead, Max Carter, the prison’s physician assistant, took him off the medications ordered by the doctor and stated that Riker did not have rheumatoid arthritis, even though he had been previously treated and diagnosed by several rheumatologists, the suit said.

Noel’s report said Riker’s untreated nerve pain was “a living hell.” Noel said he found it “simply unimaginable” that a medical professional would refuse to treat severe, chronic pain of this type.

When another prisoner, John O. Snow, asked for pills in July to ease pain from his deteriorating joints, Carter’s denial came with a missive saying that he was “gonna let you suffer,” according to internal prison records.

ACLU lawyers said they were even more troubled by the response Carter sent to death row inmate Charles Randolph last year when he asked for a specific medicine to address his heart condition.

Carter said the medication was the wrong kind and potentially lethal, but he would be happy to prescribe it “so that your chances of expiring sooner are increased.”

“The level of medical care provided at Ely is as horrific as any we have ever seen at any of the prison systems that we track across the country,” said Margaret Winter of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

Lawyers for some Ely inmates say they think the lack of medical care has played a role in a high percentage of death row inmates giving up their appeals and “volunteering” to be executed. All but two of the 12 inmates executed in the state have been volunteers.

No other state in the nation has had close to that percentage of volunteers, records show.

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