Family files lawsuit over death at Savannah, Georgia, jail

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Feb 3 (Reuters) - The family of Lee Creely, an inmate who died 17 months ago in Savannah, Georgia, filed a lawsuit against the jail’s county administrators and its health care provider this week, accusing the detention center and its medical staff of negligent care.

Creely, 34, was arrested on a probation violation on Sept. 3, 2020 for not reporting his change of address the previous month. Three nights later, Chatham County Detention Center staff found Creely dead, with his hands stiffened in rigor mortis, according to jails records reviewed by Reuters.

Reuters had first reported on Creely and the Chatham County Detention Center as part of a 2020 investigation into mortality and health care at more than 500 jails nationwide over a decade. The Chatham County Detention Center counted at least 16 inmate deaths from 2014 to 2020.

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“This jail has been and continues to be a death factory. The security operation is run terribly and the for-profit medical providers that they have brought in consistently fail to deliver necessary care to people,” the Creely family’s attorney, William Claiborne, told Reuters.

The lawsuit, which includes counts of wrongful death and denial of access to medical care, alleges that the jail’s medical provider, CorrectHealth LLC, did not provide medications or regularly monitor Creely, who was withdrawing from heroin and Xanax. CorrectHealth had prescribed Creely medications to manage his drug withdrawal, but only delivered those daily medications on his second day in custody, according to the family and jail records reviewed by Reuters.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the Georgia court system, also claims that the jail’s officers had not carried out regular checks on Creely’s cell. Shortly after Creely’s death, the sheriff’s department had fired five officers for allegedly failing to carry out security checks every 30 minutes in Creely’s jail wing. One officer was arrested for allegedly writing falsely in logbooks that he checked inmates’ cells 10 times over two and half days, but charges were later dropped.

Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher declined to comment on the lawsuit. CorrectHealth and Chatham County’s Attorney R. Jonathan Hart did not respond to requests for comment.

An autopsy by Georgia Bureau of Investigation has listed fentanyl intoxication as the official cause of death. The sheriff’s internal affairs report on Creely’s death, reviewed by Reuters, said it believed the inmate had smuggled fentanyl inside the jail, hiding it in his anal cavity, despite a physical search and a body scan.

The sheriff’s report documented a series of lapses by officers. It said a guard had not alerted medical staff that Creely had vomited in his cell on his third day in jail. Just over 24 hours later, the same officer delivered a late afternoon meal to Creely that went untouched and then watched Creely breathing heavily and shaking on his bed. Soon after, the guard glanced inside the cell again and observed Creely’s feet shaking. The guard told investigators he knew he should have called medical staff but failed to do so. Neither did he did brief his fellow officers, the report said. At 10:22 p.m. that same evening, jail staff discovered Creely’s body.

Reuters’ 2020 jail investigation, “Dying Inside”, found that nearly two-thirds of all inmates who died in the nation's largest jails never received their day in court on the charges for which they were held.

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Reporting by Ned Parker in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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