The state Department of Corrections has agreed to pay $740,000 to the family of an inmate who died in custody after suffering from a painful and treatable illness.
Ricardo Mejia, 26, died in January 2011 after developing flesh-eating bacteria so severe that it eventually forced doctors to remove his rectum. But before it came to that, he had complained for weeks about pain and a rash, state records show.
The former inmate’s family claimed in a lawsuit that the staff at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla misdiagnosed the problem.
“While in state custody, Ricardo Mejia’s medical providers ignored obvious signs of infection and serious illness and he literally rotted to death under their care through negligence and deliberate indifference,” according to the lawsuit.
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One of those providers, physician assistant Kenneth Moore, was charged with unprofessional conduct by a Department of Health commission, but the charge was dismissed. He is still working at the prison, according to the state.
The settlement did not include an admission of wrongdoing. A state Department of Health investigation into the death earlier found “deficiencies” in Mejia’s care.
The death caused the Department of Corrections (DOC) to order several changes at the prison, including more clearly identifying a doctor for each inmate, ensuring each admission to the medical unit is discussed with supervisors, establishing regular weekday medical-staff meetings and educating all staff about flesh-eating bacteria, spokeswoman Norah West said.
“Anytime an incident like this occurs, we take it very seriously,” West said.
Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the office could not say how the amount of the settlement compared with others involving DOC.
Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which represented the family in the lawsuit, said this was one of the state’s biggest-ever settlements related to the medical treatment of an inmate.
More important, he said the case is notable because it shows that officials have not done enough to combat the “dismal state of medical care in Washington state prisons.”
Wright, a former inmate himself who served 17 years for murder, said “The news is that, after all the litigation, all the news coverage, very little has changed.”
He pointed in particular to the case of Charlie Manning, a Mason County man who lost his penis and a testicle to flesh-eating bacteria while at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, serving a 13-month sentence for threatening his neighbor and stealing the man’s pistol in a drunken argument.
Manning received $300,000 in a 2008 settlement.
“Whatever they did (after the Manning settlement), if they did anything,” Wright said, “obviously didn’t help Ricardo Mejia.”
West, the spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said she didn’t know if anything was changed after the Manning case.
Mejia, who was in prison on a murder, had a history of rectal bleeding and was treated for a rash and other problems starting in the fall of 2010, according to a Department of Health investigation.
He saw prison-medical staff 14 times between Nov. 29, 2010, and Jan. 10, 2011, but continued to report being in pain.
On Jan. 11, he said he had a “medical emergency” and was eventually admitted to the prison’s medical unit.
On the morning of Jan. 15, Moore, the physician assistant, “noted that he anticipated (Mejia) would improve and return to inmate housing within a few days,” according to the investigation.
Mejia was taken to a nearby hospital that afternoon and airlifted that evening to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, where he had surgery. He died the next day.
Mejia’s children will benefit from the settlement.
Although the settlement was finalized in December, family members waited to publicize it until receiving the money because they were afraid the state would not follow through with the agreement, Wright said.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal