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Lawsuit filed in death of detainee

Jail, infirmary are accused of negligence

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 16, 2011

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The daughter of a 49-year-old immigrant detainee who died in 2009 after an infection overwhelmed his body filed a federal lawsuit yesterday, accusing officials at the Suffolk County House of Correction and its privately run infirmary of gross negligence leading to his death.

The claim, which was filed electronically with US District Court in Boston, seeks unspecified damages in the October 2009 death of Pedro Tavarez, a Providence shuttle driver who was in jail fighting deportation to the Dominican Republic.

In the lawsuit, Judith Tavarez of Florida accuses jail and infirmary officials of reckless neglect, saying her father “died from a heart attack caused by a massive sepsis infection that the defendants failed to properly treat.’’ The lawsuit, which alleges civil rights violations and medical malpractice, cites a federal report last year that said Suffolk officials waited too long to take Tavarez to the hospital, allowing the infection to spread. His death triggered protests from advocates for immigrants and others concerned about detainees’ care.

“If our country is going to lock people up just because they want to come live with us, the very least we can do is provide them decent medical care,’’ said Robert Sinsheimer, the Boston lawyer who represents Judith, Tava rez’s only child. “My client lost her dad because our government failed to properly discharge this most basic duty. This is not just a lawsuit, it’s a moral outrage.’’

The lawsuit names Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral and jail superintendent Gerard Horgan, who supervise the jail, along with Prison Health Services, the private Tennessee-based company that manages the infirmary and which now goes by the name PHS Correctional Healthcare, according to its website. The claim also names Colleen Collins, a jail physician.

In a statement last night, James M. Davin, the Suffolk County sheriff’s general counsel, denied that the Sheriff’s Department was indifferent to Tavarez’s care. He said the allegations in the claim “do not remotely support a civil rights complaint against any employee of the Sheriff’s Department,’’ and vowed to fight it.

“Neither the sheriff, the superintendent, nor the unidentified corrections officers have a role in the medical care provided to inmates or detainees,’’ Davin said in the statement. “They were certainly not deliberately indifferent to his medical care. The allegations against all Sheriff’s Department defendants are denied, and the complaint will be vigorously defended.’’

Davin said Tavarez and his cellmates said they thought he had a cold when he asked to be seen by the infirmary on Oct. 14, 2009, and that Tavarez was seen by medical staff that night and taken to the infirmary.

PHS Correctional Healthcare officials did not respond to requests for comment yesterday. Collins was not at the jail yesterday and could not be reached.

Tavarez’s claim does not target US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency in charge of immigrant detention and deportation. At that time, ICE was paying Suffolk $90 per person per day to house immigrant detainees facing deportation.

In a review of Tavarez’s death last year, ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility raised multiple issues with Tavarez’s care, including incomplete medical records, language barriers, and failure to complete basic tasks, such as consistently checking his vital signs and sending him to a hospital that was able to treat him.

Tavarez stayed for nearly two days in the jail infirmary before he was taken to the first of three hospitals. He died Oct. 19, 2009 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Suffolk County officials defended the infirmary after Tavarez’s death, saying it is highly rated and provides care as quickly and efficiently as possible. The infirmary is staffed by three physicians on weekdays and by several nurses each day. It provides general medical care along with a variety of services, including mental health, dental, and nutrition services, physical therapy, optometry, and care for infectious disease.

The infirmary serves more than 1,600 inmates in the jail, including regular inmates and immigrant detainees.

Tavarez came to the United States as a legal immigrant in 1976, but was later ordered deported. He had previous drug convictions, one in the 1980s in New York and another in 2007 in Rhode Island for a small amount of cocaine.

He eluded deportation until April 2008, when Rhode Island State Police stopped him for a traffic violation and turned him over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

His family said he was still fighting to stay in the United States.

Tavarez’s death raised concerns about the quality of medical care of immigrant detainees, who are held in federal, local, and privately run jails across the United States.

In 2008, federal officials removed immigrants from the privately operated Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., after a 34-year-old Chinese citizen was denied medical treatment shortly before he died of cancer.

Tavarez’s death also triggered conflict between Sheriff Cabral and ICE. Last year she threatened to terminate the federal agency’s contract to house immigrant detainees at the jail, saying that ICE failed to provide copies of detainees’ complaints and did not give her a copy of the Tavarez report until after it was released to the media. Suffolk had also asked ICE for more money to house the detainees. Later Cabral reconsidered and the two agencies resumed negotiations on their contract.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.