Two jail staffers left after inmate death

LAWRENCEVILLE - Two staff members who reportedly treated a fatally ill female inmate with indifference and cruelty before she died at the Gwinnett County Detention Center have since left their jobs at the jail under a cloud of suspicion.

Nurse Brian Woodard resigned Oct. 24 amid an internal investigation into several stolen amphetamine pills that had been prescribed for an inmate. Deputy Benita Smallwood was fired Nov. 8 for allegedly having an affair with a male inmate. Smallwood's relationship with an inmate included "inappropriate touching and recorded conversations with the inmate that involved extremely explicit sexual talk," according to an internal investigation file.

Both files were obtained through an open-records request from the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Woodard was assigned to the infirmary desk and Smallwood was working security in the jail's medical unit on Oct. 16 when inmate Harriett Washington was sent there for treatment. Washington, a 43-year-old awaiting trial for a cocaine possession charge, had previously been diagnosed with myeloid leukemia. An apparent relapse was causing pain, high fevers, nausea and difficulty breathing.

A female inmate who was also in the medical unit recovering from a surgery claimed she witnessed Washington being treated poorly by the medical staff and complained to jail officials about it. The inmate said Washington was trying to move from a wheelchair to a "boat" portable bed on the floor when she passed out.

The inmate claimed Smallwood and Woodard responded by asking, "Why did you try to move, anyway?" Washington reportedly told the nurse and deputy: "I need to go to the hospital. Something doesn't feel right."

The inmate said Smallwood responded by saying, "There isn't even a doctor here on weekends, the whole jail is on lockdown, and you can't stay in medical. ... What do you think this is, the Hyatt?" The inmate described both Smallwood and Woodard as "nothing short of cruel" and noted they both appeared bothered by Washington's presence in the medical ward.

A day later, Washington was dead.

When questioned about why he didn't call a doctor for Washington that weekend, Woodard told authorities she didn't appear to be in any distress. Woodard said he made a doctor's appointment for her the following Monday morning. However, Washington's cellmates and deputies who were in the housing unit said they witnessed Washington vomiting repeatedly all over the cell, experiencing dizziness, acting delirious and having difficulty breathing.

When asked why he didn't document any of his encounters with Washington, he said it was because he didn't do anything for her. He told the supervisor he knew he should have documented even a lack of treatment and said, "I know I (expletive deleted) up," according to the supervisor's notes.

Smallwood was also interviewed about the alleged encounter.

She remembered seeing Washington in the medical unit. She also recalled Washington asking to see a doctor and wanting to be taken to the hospital. However, she denied making any derogatory comments to the woman. Smallwood told investigators the female inmate who claimed to have witnessed the incident had been a disruption since returning from the hospital.

Officials ponder investigation results

Stacey Kelley, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, said Smallwood was never found to be at fault in Washington's death because there was no proof of misconduct.

"It is basically an inmate's word against her word," Kelley said. "We feel we investigate every case. We have a history of investigating any complaints with deputies. We do take them seriously, and we do act swiftly."

Kelley said the fact that Smallwood was later terminated for having an affair is evidence that complaints of inappropriate conduct are handled with speed and efficiency by the Sheriff's Department.

"Her actions (in that incident) were inappropriate, inexcusable, and she was promptly terminated."

Two other female deputies questioned during the course of the investigation expressed anger and frustration at Prison Health Services employees over the fact that Washington was never hospitalized. An internal investigation released Wednesday by the Sheriff's Department cleared its deputies of any wrongdoing in Washington's death.

However, an investigation exposed multiple failures by employees of Prison Health Services, the Nashville, Tenn., based company that is contracted to provide medical care at the jail.

The file noted there was "a clear lack of documentation through the medical emergency treatment" Washington received from PHS staff after she collapsed in her cell in the predawn hours of Oct. 17. The report also states there were "some inconsistencies" in the number of times Washington had been seen in the medical unit and what type of treatment was provided to her during the days before her death.

Susan Morgenstern, spokeswoman for Prison Health Services, declined to discuss the internal investigation results on Friday, saying "patient confidentiality prevents us from discussing individual cases."

Kelley said Sheriff Butch Conway is "looking into his options" regarding the county's contract with PHS, which is set to expire Oct. 31, but there has been no serious discussions about terminating the agreement early. Kelley would not discuss what options were being researched.

Health care company faces scrutiny elsewhere

Prison Health Services, the largest private provider of correctional health care in the nation, has had a profitable business relationship with Gwinnett County in recent years. In 2004, it was paid about $6.4 million for treating inmates at the Detention Center and the Correctional Complex.

Prison Health Services has been faulted for inmate deaths in other jurisdictions, prompting some local officials to discontinue contracts with the company.

Last year, officials in Richland County, S.C., ended a contract with PHS following the deaths of three mentally ill inmates during the past three years, saying they were "terribly dissatisfied" with services.

Nashville jail officials also replaced PHS last year with another inmate health care service in the wake of widespread criticism for failing to give inmates enough medical attention. Three diabetic inmates were alleged to have become ill there after receiving substandard care beginning in January 2005.