Lawsuit claims deputies "literally watched" New York inmate die

By Erin Donaghue

/ CBS News

The family of a 27-year-old woman who died after her physical and mental health declined during 17 days in a western New York jail has sued 73 Erie County sheriff's employees, claiming they all failed to get her medical help that a medical review board said could have saved her life.

India Cummings died at the Erie County Medical Center Feb. 21, 2016, after suffering a pulmonary embolism resulting from renal failure, rhabdomyolysis (a breakdown of muscle tissue), dehydration and an untreated broken arm, according to a June report issued by the New York State Commission of Correction. The commission's medical review board, which investigates in-custody deaths, in June 2018 found the medical and mental health care Cummings received while incarcerated at the Erie County Holding Center was "so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience."

The New York attorney general opened an investigation into the death last year. And Cummings' family, which had already filed a lawsuit against the Erie County Sheriff and others, last week filed an additional lawsuit against the deputies after piecing together a timeline of Cummings' last days through jail records, family lawyer Matthew Albert told CBS News.

"We came to the conclusion there were 70-plus deputies, all of whom had sufficient time to see a severely ill individual in custody couldn't care for herself, and none of whom cared for her in any manner," Albert said.

India Cummings WROC

The medical review board found that Cummings suffered the broken arm during her Feb. 1, 2016, arrest by the Lackawanna Police Department and ruled that Cummings would have survived with the appropriate care, supervision and intervention. The board said her death should be ruled a homicide by medical neglect, disagreeing with the Erie County Medical Examiner in its ruling that the cause and manner of Cummings' death were both undetermined.

According to the Buffalo News, the county pathologist ruled the death to be complications from a broken arm including rhabdomyolysis, but couldn't determine the cause or manner because it wasn't clear whether her arm was broken accidentally or by officers.

Albert told CBS News that Cummings' treatment before her death appears to be "par for the course" for the Erie County Holding Center, which has faced criticism over medical and mental health care for inmates. The Appeal reports that Cummings was among 24 people who died in the jail during the tenure of sheriff Timothy Howard, who took the office in 2005.

A 2018 report by the Commission of Correction found the Erie County Holding Center to be among the "most problematic local correctional facilities in the state." It noted "numerous serious incidents" including inmate assaults, escapes and deaths, and said the commission has launched enforcement actions against the Erie County sheriff for failure to correct violations, including not reporting attempted inmate suicides.

The commission also cited a 2012 suicide by an inmate it found had not been properly referred for mental health treatment, and an inmate who died of a perforated ulcer in 2014 after it found staffers didn't provide adequate medical care.

Cummings' mother, Tawana Wyatt, said her daughter suffered under the watch of the deputies at the holding center, who should have had her safety in mind.

"I just pray that they be brought to justice," Wyatt told told CBS affiliate WIVB.

Police responded to Cummings' Lackawanna home for a mental health emergency Feb. 1, 2016, and after they arrived she carjacked a vehicle, led police on a chase and crashed into several cars, according to the board's report. She was combative during her arrest, and police forced her out of the car and onto the ground. Based on the nature of the call and Cummings' erratic behavior, the report found she should have been evaluated at a hospital before being jailed, but wasn't. Cummings had no known medical or mental health issues or a criminal history, the report found.

In the 17 days she was incarcerated in the Erie County Holding Center, she was refusing meals and medications and displaying bizarre behavior including smearing wet cereal and defecating on her cell floor, lying in her cell naked and throwing trash around, the report said. The medical review board's report said her fractured arm went untreated and jail staff didn't report a critical observation that she hadn't urinated in 40 hours and was hyperventilating, a sign of renal failure. She was hospitalized Feb. 17 after suffering a cardiac arrest at the jail, according to the report, and died several days later.

The lawsuit says Cummings' worsening physical and mental condition constituted a medical emergency, and it outlines numerous instances in which it says jail staff should have transported her to the hospital, but didn't.

It says Cummings had an urgent referral for mental health treatment on Feb. 3 because of the acute change in her behavior and a physical altercation with deputies, but despite the referral, she was transferred to a non-medical disciplinary housing unit. On Feb. 5, the lawsuit says, Cummings was seen to be "delusional, minimally engaged, disorganized and responding to internal stimuli" and was transferred to a unit for inmates with known medical conditions, but still didn't receive treatment.

She was scheduled to be transferred on Feb. 8 to the Erie County Medical Center for an evaluation of her severely fractured left arm, but the lawsuit says a deputy never took her there because Cummings refused transportation. The deputy should have known Cummings' wasn't of sound mind and couldn't make medical decisions for herself, the lawsuit claims.

Cummings didn't receive any documented medical treatment until Feb. 11, the lawsuit says, when she was assessed by a forensic mental health physician at the urging of the local criminal court. The physician was told that Cummings appeared "increasingly confused" and hadn't been eating or drinking. The physician opined that Cummings may need hospital care.

The same day a nurse attempted to make an assessment and noted that Cummings was disheveled and had poor hygiene, and that her left forearm was unsupported and had a reddish hue. the lawsuit says. Also on Feb. 11, an Erie County Department of Forensic Mental Health counselor said Cummings "appeared to be decompensated. She is disengaged and her behavior is bizarre," the lawsuit says.

Cummings was placed on meal monitoring and "constant observation" during which a deputy was assigned to observe her every 15 minutes, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says nearly every jail record notation between Feb. 11 and Feb. 16 shows Cummings lying on the floor of her bunk, and for six days Cummings was seen "not to have consumed adequate food, not to have consumed adequate hydration, and is observed to be naked, urinating and defecating in her cell."

"Despite this, no attempt is made by the above-captioned defendants to assist Cummings, have her transported to a hospital, or otherwise tend to her serious medical needs," the lawsuit states. "From February 11, 2016 to February 17, 2016, the above-captioned sheriff's deputies, sergeants and lieutenants assigned to observe Cummings literally watch her die and documented the same."

On Feb. 13, a deputy saw Cummings urinating on the floor, placing her clothes in the toilet and attempting to put them back on. She told the deputy she had not been eating, according to the lawsuit, and said "I'm dying."

On Feb. 16, a forensic mental health worker saw Cummings "defecating on the floor of her cell, rubbing cereal on her body, and throwing food on the floor, according to the lawsuit. Records note Cummings "drank a little milk today" but refused food, the lawsuit says, saying "I don't trust" when encouraged to eat. A forensic mental health worker noted Cummings "needs inpatient," the lawsuit says, but she again wasn't transported.

The next day, Cummings became unconscious and was transported to a hospital. She was found to be critically ill, having suffered cardiac arrest, severe dehydration, malnutrition and organ failure. She died Feb. 21. The lawsuit says she sustained "great pain, suffering and physical anguish" and was living in inhumane conditions where she was allowed to "wallow in her own waste" before her death.

The lawsuit argues all the 73 sheriff's employees violated Cummings' Constitutional rights and claims three of the deputies engaged in malicious prosecution for charging Cummings for her non-compliant behavior while she was mentally unstable, essentially "criminalizing" her mental illness.

The Erie County Sheriff's office did not respond to a request for comment from CBS News. A spokeswoman for the department wouldn't comment to the Appeal, citing the pending lawsuit.

Albert said Cummings' family has been devastated by her death, but they hope that it will be a "turning point" in how people are treated at the holding center and a "vehicle for change" in terms of prisoner's rights nationally.

"My prayer and my goal is for not another India to come through that holding center," Wyatt told WIVB.

First published on February 8, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Erin Donaghue

Erin Donaghue covers crime for CBSNews.com's Crimesider.

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