A deadly for-profit jail that sits on the border of Texas and Arkansas is facing yet another federal lawsuit after the “senseless” death of an inmate whose family called her “just the latest victim of a greedy corporate culture that sees inmates as dollar signs and puts profits over people’s lives.”
Holly Barlow-Austin died last June after her stay at the Bi-State Justice Center Jail, a facility that is run by LaSalle Corrections. A lawsuit filed Wednesday by her husband and mother says that the company has been “neglecting and abusing inmates, disregarding their fundamental constitutional rights, and engaging in other cruel and inhumane acts and practices.” LaSalle, the lawsuit says, “refuses to fix the systemic constitutional deficiencies” that keep causing deaths.
“So long as the corporation continues to profit, nothing changes,” the lawsuit states. “This case goes the very heart of everything that’s wrong with the privatization of America’s county jails.”
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One of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, Erik Heipt, previously represented the family of 35-year-old Michael Sabbie, who died at the Bi-State jail in 2015 after telling guards “I can’t breathe” at least 19 times before being tossed into the cell where he’d die. The circumstances of Sabbie’s death were first reported as part of HuffPost’s jail deaths project, which sought to track jail deaths in America in the year following the death of Sandra Bland.
Last year, in a remarkable 169-page opinion, a federal magistrate judge laid out the role that evidence showed LaSalle played in Sabbie’s death. “Here, the evidence shows that at various times during his confinement, the security officers knew Mr. Sabbie faced obvious health risks,” the judge wrote, writing that officials “knowingly disregarded Mr. Sabbie’s complaints, thus acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.”
Before his death, officials wrote Sabbie up for “creating a disturbance” when he sought medical help for his breathing problems. Similarly, according to the new lawsuit, a Bi-State jail official said that Barlow-Austin “pretends to be weak” and “knows how to play the sickly role” before she died.
“LaSalle has a corporate culture of treating all inmates as fakers,” Heipt told HuffPost. “When inmates report medical problems, LaSalle guards and nurses accuse them of feigning illness or distress — even when they are displaying objectively abnormal vital signs and symptoms. This has led to multiple deaths at the Bi-State Jail and other LaSalle-run facilities. And it played a role in the death of Holly Barlow-Austin.”
Heipt said he’s seen similar cultures in other jails and prisons, particularly those which are run for-profit.
“If the assumption is that everyone’s faking it, then less people get medical treatment and care,” he said. “Less people getting medical treatment and care means fewer costs and higher corporate profits.”
If a country treated a prisoner of war the way LaSalle and its employees treated Barlow-Austin, Heipt added, “it would be a war crime.”
The lawsuit, which links to video clips of the final days of Barlow-Austin’s life, says that she spent her final two days at the facility “constantly holding and rubbing her head, moaning in pain.”
“She was sleep deprived, dehydrated, and half-starved. She had only three small cups of water and a few small bites of food. By the morning of June 11, 2019, she was so thin and emaciated that her bones were jutting out. Her last 48 hours were tantamount to torture. The callousness with which she was treated amounted to abject cruelty that shocks the conscience,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges the facility failed to provide Barlow-Austin with her “vital prescription medication, failing to monitor and treat her life-threatening medical needs, failing to transport her to the hospital until it was too late to save her life, housing her in deplorable and inhumane conditions of confinement, depriving her of water, forcing her to endure extreme and pointless pain and suffering, causing her death, and robbing her surviving family members of their relationship with her.”
Barlow-Austin’s death, the lawsuit says the hospital found, was caused by “fungemia/sepsis due to fungus, cryptococcal meningitis, HIV-AIDS, and accelerated hypertension.” For the last days of her life, according to the suit, “her family had no idea that she was in the local hospital, in critical condition, barely clinging to life.”
LaSalle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As news station WFAA reported last year, LaSalle Corrections was able to avoid a criminal investigation into Barlow-Austin’s death through a legal loophole: discharging sick prisoners before their death allows jails to avoid reporting their deaths, and in Texas, to skirt a criminal investigation.
Discharging Barlow-Austin before her death also likely would have allowed the facility to avoid reporting the death to the federal government. The Justice Department’s data on jail deaths is aggregated at the state level, so it doesn’t allow the public to identify facilities with particularly high death rates. DOJ’s data is also released with significant delay: jail death data from the current year isn’t on pace to be released until 2024.
LaSalle Corrections is currently in the news because a whistleblower alleged that female detainees at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Georgia that is run by the company were being subjected to nonconsensual hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.
Earlier this year, the company settled another lawsuit filed by the family of Morgan Angerbauer, who died from complications of her diabetes. (In July, members of Angerbauer’s family gathered in front of the jail to release balloons in her honor and draw attention in inmates’ medical needs.) After the deaths of two other inmates in 2019, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found that LaSalle falsified documents as well. (As illustrated by Jeffrey Epstein’s death, falsifying reports, sometimes referred to as “pencil-whipping,” is a relatively widespread practice in jails and prisons.)
Despite the deaths and widespread issues at the Bi-State Jail, the Bowie County Commissioners Court renewed the company’s contract earlier this year. LaSalle Corrections was the only bidder. For the next 2.5 years, the company will be paid $57.17 per inmate per day. The less they of that money they spend on inmate care, the larger their profits.
Read the complaint below.
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