Lawsuits highlight multiple inmate deaths under private contractor in Pennsylvania

PrimeCare Medical Inc. PrimeCare Medical Inc.
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On March 27th, a jury in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, found that private jail medical contractor PrimeCare Medical Inc. was negligent, but ultimately not responsible for the death of 27-year-old inmate Travis Magditch.

The Magditch family sued PrimeCare and Lehigh County in 2012 after Travis was arrested for allegedly possessing drug paraphernalia and died of an asthma attack at the jail one day later.

The family’s attorney, David Inscho, told jurors this was Travis’ first time behind bars. He stated that he had “called his parents when he got there, begging to be bailed out.” The local police offered to release Travis into his father’s custody, but having seen his son struggle with heroin addiction for two years, he decided against it. Mr. Magditch believed this decision would force Travis to “get help for his drug addiction” and enter rehabilitation.

Travis had a history of suffering from severe shortness of breath due to asthma. The complaint states that he was assessed to have “severely low” lung function when he first entered the jail. Documents show medical staff noted his past with asthma and heroin addiction, including his prescriptions and use of an inhaler. They noted who his doctor was and how to contact the pharmacy to order his medications. But according to the lawsuit, medical staff only placed orders for some of his medications. Most notably, the inhaler was not included.

The morning after his arrest, the lawsuit claims that Travis was seen for sick-call and was assessed to be at level 1 – the highest priority level for medical care. Again, medical staff noted his history with asthma. Nonetheless, he was returned to his cell without a rescue inhaler.

The lawsuit alleges that no one was around to hear Travis call for help that night, which was confirmed for jurors in testimony from jail and medical staff during the trial. He was found unresponsive on the floor of his cell the next morning and pronounced dead soon thereafter.

The doctor named in the lawsuit is a man by the name of Dr. Dennis Erik Fluck Von Kiel. Dr. Von Kiel directed the medical program at Lehigh County Jail from 1989 until PrimeCare took over in 2004. He was still working there for PrimeCare in 2012 and allegedly oversaw the medical staff treating Travis. It was under his name and license number that the lawsuit claims that the incomplete prescription order had been made.

The Magditch family believes PrimeCare failed to follow its own policies by not providing Travis with a rescue inhaler in his cell. They argue that PrimeCare cuts corners on providing inmates with adequate medical care in order to maximize their profits. Lawyers for PrimeCare pushed back by claiming they had ‘various reasons’ for not distributing inhalers to every inmate with asthma, including that “they could be used as weapons.” They called the coroner’s findings that Magditch died of an asthma attack “an oversimplification.”

While the jury ultimately sided with PrimeCare and Dr. Von Kiel in the case of Travis Magditch, both are at the center of a new lawsuit filed in the beginning of February that alleges strikingly similar misconduct.

Barvina Berrios

According to a complaint filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a woman named Barvina Berrios was arrested following a “traffic altercation” involving someone she knew on February 4, 2013. The lawsuit says that Barvina suffered from multiple chronic conditions, including asthma, diabetes and bi-polar disorder. It also stated that Barvina was a long-time member of a methadone program after having defeated “childhood drug dependency.”

Unable to post bail, Barvina was sent to Lehigh County Jail, where she was seen by Doctor Von Kiel on in-take.

Dr. Von Kiel prescribed “a regime of pharmaceutical treatments for Barvina’s various illnesses,” including monitoring and treating her diabetes.

In a matter of days, the lawsuit claims, Barvina’s health began to deteriorate. She reported having serious chest pains and coughing up blood. She told her family about these problems when they visited her on February 7th.

The complaint alleges that it was during this visit that Barvina’s daughter noticed she had “dried blood around her mouth, that she was limping, and that her vision had deteriorated such that it was difficult for her to read the information to use the telephone communication system for the visit.”

Four days later, Barvina had to use a wheelchair to attend her preliminary hearing and could “barely speak above a whisper,” the lawsuit states. Her family notice she had gotten a lot worse, but the complaint says that their concerns “fell upon deaf ears.”

The family alleges that it was so obvious Barvina’s health was in critical condition that “even individuals without any medical training would know, or should have known, that she required immediate emergency medical intervention.”

According to the complaint, as Barvina’s health declined and she began to call out for help from her cell, other inmates began to raise their concerns with prison staff. In response, the lawsuit states that Barvina was placed in solitary confinement “so that she would not disturb the other inmates.”

The complaint goes on to say, “It is beneath the nationally recognized standards for the care of pre-trial detainees, such as Barvina, to provide such substandard medical care as to allow an inmate to literally rot in her cell, as happened with Barvina.” It notes that, because she was supposed to be getting injections several times each day, medical staff delivering those injections should have been well-aware of her condition.

On Valentines day, 2013, Barvina’s family finally made bail for her. The lawsuit states that when the bail bond person saw Barvina, he recommended the family take her to the hospital right away. She was allegedly in intense pain and had blood coming out of her mouth.

Despite all of this, the complaint states, “Lehigh County Jail officials delayed her release for 3 hours after the necessary paperwork and bail had been furnished to them.” As soon as she was released, they took her to Allentown Sacred Hospital (ASH), where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, fever and septic shock. She died the next night — just one day after her release.

According to the lawsuit, Barvina’s primary cause of death was septic shock, “which had been present for approximately 25 hours” and pneumonia, “which had been present for approximately 5 days.”

Doctor Von Kiel

Dr. Von Kiel was arrested by IRS agents in February 2014 and charged with federal tax evasion. PrimeCare fired him soonafter. He  is currently under indictment for social security fraud and federal tax evasion. He plead guilty in January of this year to charges that he had fabricated his membership in a Utah-based church to avoid paying taxes and his overdue loans from med school.

“Living Soul, Erik Von Kiel,” as Doctor Von Kiel was sometimes known, conducted this scheme with a man from Utah named Robert G. Wray, who also went by the name “Robert-George: Wray of the Christ Clan.” Wray was a self-described ‘Attorney-at-Lawe’ despite not being licensed to practice law anywhere. According to Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch, both identify as so-called ‘sovereign citizens.’

Just seven months after he cared for Barvina Berrios, the lawsuit states that Doctor Von Kiel “drafted a letter, as part of a scheme to collect Social Security benefits,” stating that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He claimed to have suffered from it for seven years, and  that in the past “several months” it had deteriorated rapidly, rendering him unable to care for patients.

Barvina’s lawsuit also lists other incidents involving Lehigh County and PrimeCare.

  • On October, 2011, 25 year old David Campbell died after having been placed in a restrain chair while in obvious physical distress, and denied medical treatment
  • On January 1, 2012, 25 year old Andrew Czonska committed suicide while in a cell with no cellmate and no monitoring;
  • On February 27, 2013, 39 year old Alphie Herrera died from being placed in a restraint chair while suffering an epileptic seizure. A subsequent investigation by Lehigh County, believed to have been conducted by one or more of the individual defendants, determined that no remedial action was warranted; and
  • On January 16, 2014, 30 year old Frank Reichl-Pritchard died from self-inflicted injuries while in a cell with no cellmate and no monitoring of his condition.

The stories outlined in these complaints line up perfectly with those coming out of other jails that have outsourced their medical care to companies like PrimeCare and other private inmate medical contractors, across the country. In almost every case, an individual’s most basic health needs are unarguably unmet as their condition visibly deteriorates. Many times the complaints involve shocking stories of negligent or malicious behavior on behalf of medical staff who probably should have never been working there in the first place. It is at that point only – the point of no return for far too many inmates – that the private medical company finally springs into action, sending the inmate off to emergency rooms where many die or go on to suffer from lifelong injury.

The Magditch family said they may appeal the jury’s decision. Given PrimeCare and Doctor Van Kiel’s records, that might not be a bad idea.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Firedoglake.com. Learn more at http://briansonenstein.com
Brian Sonenstein
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