Jailed woman's death questioned

March 19, 2008 9:15:35 PM PDT
In the two weeks since the Department of Justice launched an investigation into inmate treatment at the Harris County Jail, Eyewitness News has been digging into cases and records. We're looking at one inmate's recent death. The sheriff's office calls it tragic and rare.

The Harris County Jail has a health clinic, a women's clinic, a pharmacy, isolation cells for sick inmates, a detox cell and a dentist's office. The point is, it's extensive and expensive. Jail health care cost $34 million tax dollars last year.

"The care of the people in our custody, that's our primary responsibility," said Lt. John Legg of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

So then why Amalia Cazares asks did her mother Margarita Saavedra die in the Harris County Jail? The 44 year old grandmother, in jail awaiting trial on drug charges, cried in pain for days. So loudly it kept her cellmates awake at night. An inmate called Amalia to tell her mother was dead.

"She said, 'Baby I am sending you your mom's stuff,'" Cazares said. "I said why? She told me, 'Your mom passed,' then I dropped the phone."

It was a familiar voice. Panicked inmates repeatedly called Amalia in the days before her mother's death.

"They were not giving her the medical treatment and she needed to go to the hospital," Cazares said.

Saavedra died 12 days after complaining of pain and swelling in her knee. She'd fallen off her top bunk. The medical examiner says she died of Sepsis, a blood infection, in this case caused by staph bacteria. The sheriff's office says she went to the jail clinic three times, but they never diagnosed the staph.

"This was an unfortunate, very tragic situation and very difficult to detect," said Lt. Legg.

Department of Justice investigators are looking to see if there is a pattern of inmate mistreatment or neglect, one of the areas they're looking at is medical care.

Inmate advocates tell us medical care at the jail has gotten much better. They say it sets a new standard in Texas. And hope it keeps up. Inmates have the Constitutional right to medical care. If they don't get it, it can be an expensive problem.

"You really are going to pay for it one way or another," said inmate advocate Sarah Guidry. "The best way to deal with it is to get the people the treatment they need while they're incarcerated."

In Margarita Saaverdra's case, at least 25 cellmates offered statements to detail what some of them call mistreatment, sending Amalia a letter from jail, telling her they watched as her mother suffered unable to eat, sleep or use the bathroom on her own.

"We know she was not faking, she was treated horribly," said Cazares while reading a letter from the inmates.

Amalia's family has reached out to a lawyer, but has not yet filed suit. According to the Department of Justice, two Texas lawsuits alleging poor inmate health care cost Texans more than $42 million in settlements since 2003.

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