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Inmates's family files suit claiming Ferguson inmate wasn't given medication before 2016 suicide
Midway, Texas
   
 
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The family of an inmate who died by suicide in a Texas lock-up after he was allegedly not given his medication for weeks at a time is suing the state prison system, claiming the Ferguson Unit customarily deprives prisoners of psychiatric drugs.

A number of red flags could have alerted medical staff to a problem well before Cornielus Lewis hanged himself inside his cell in 2016, the federal lawsuit contends. But instead, Lewis didn't take or wasn't given his medication on a regular basis, prompting him to lodge a complaint over the lack of drugs - one of 81 similar complaints filed by Ferguson prisoners over the course of a year, the lawsuit alleges.

"We're not talking about an instance where someone has missed their medicine once or twice," said Christine Stetson, the Beaumont lawyer who's handling the case. "We're not talking about an honest mistake. We're talking about repeated lengthy periods of time where the medical staff charged with proper delivery of medication just didn't do it."

READ MORE: Suicide attempts have more than doubled in Texas prisons


The suit, initially filed in February, targets the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, prison medical care provider University of Texas Medical Branch and a number of individual employees. In March, TDCJ and UTMB both filed motions to dismiss, but the suit is still ongoing.

Though UTMB declined to comment citing pending litigation, prison spokesman Jeremy Desel defended the system's medical care.

"While I cannot address this specific case because of pending litigation, the safety, security, health and overall well-being of offenders is of paramount importance to the TDCJ," Desel said. "Offenders in need of mental health treatment receive comprehensive care through the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas Tech University Health Science Center."

The lawsuit comes amid a long-term uptick in suicide attempts in Texas prisons. Over a four-year period, the attempted suicide rate inside the state system doubled, a change that experts called "concerning" but TDCJ attributed to broader efforts to track mental health issues.

At the time of Lewis' death, the 21-year-old - who was serving three years for two robberies and a weapons charge - was housed at the same prison in Midway where a teacher alleged she was raped by an inmate late last year.

When Lewis arrived on the 2,100-prisoner unit sometime around June 2015, he was put on an antidepressant and an antipsychotic, though he allegedly wasn't given the drugs as prescribed for weeks at a time throughout the remainder of the summer. In some cases, he refused treatment, but in other cases medical records don't make clear what happened, according to court filings.

That August, he cut his finger with a razor, and the next day was given medication again, the suit alleges.

The following month, he was prescribed a different antidepressant. He was given the drug most of the time for a few months, but not at all for about two weeks in early December. On Dec. 12, he filed a complaint about not getting his meds, and a few days later started receiving the drugs again.

But on Dec. 19 - another day he allegedly didn't receive his medication - Lewis was treated for a laceration to his left forearm that the suit says may have been self-inflicted.

In March, the prison stopped his medication for "unknown reasons," the suit says. Medical staff saw him for self-mutilation in April, and he was involved in a use-of-force incident and a separate altercation with his cellmate in June. At that point, records show Lewis was found with X-shaped lacerations on his torso and arms.

Days later, he started medication again.

But then, from July 11 to July 31, he was only given medicine five times, the suit says.

On July 31, a guard found Lewis hanging from a bed sheet in his cell.

READ MORE: Texas prison teacher says inmate raped her at understaffed unit 

Though the suit delves into the events surrounding Lewis' death, it also lobs broader claims about Ferguson's medical practices, noting the 81 grievances filed in a one-year period by inmates complaining they weren't given their medications.

"The custom and practice of the Ferguson Unit is to routinely deny inmates their needed medications," the suit claims. Just the "sheer volume" of times Lewis didn't get his medication showed a systemic problem with "policy or procedure," Stetson added.

Accordingly, in addition to asking for compensation for mental anguish and funeral costs, the claim also asks for injunctive relief, demanding that UTMB and TDCJ retool their procedures to make sure prisoners are given their medications as prescribed.

The suit doesn't ask for a specific dollar amount, but Stetson said the dead prisoner's family is also optimistic about the possibility of injunctive relief.

"Ultimately, they're going to tell their story to a jury and maybe help some other along the way," she said.

The lawsuit comes amid a long-term uptick in suicide attempts in Texas prisons. Over a four-year period, the attempted suicide rate inside the state system doubled, a change that experts called "concerning" but TDCJ attributed to broader efforts to track mental health issues.

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