The largest settlement in the Oregon Department of Corrections’ (“DOC”) history, $2.7 million, was awarded to the brother of a man who suffered for weeks while prison medical staff ignored him. His half-brother, Stephen Brown, filed the lawsuit.
In January 2018, Oregon State Penitentiary inmate Michael Barton, 54, contracted the flu. Before his death, one month later, he battled pneumonia, a staph infection, and sepsis. It did not have to end that way.
Unable to Drink, Eat, or Take Medicine
According to the lawsuit, as Barton got sicker, prison medical staff refused to put him in the infirmary because they feared other patients catching the flu.
As his health declined, he could not drink, eat or take his medicine. Barton had been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and depression and was mentally impaired. The uneaten food trays remained in his cell.
During this time, when prison officials knew Barton’s condition, they did not go into the cell to take his vital signs. In fact, one prison staffer told an inmate assistant not to try to get Barton to drink. In an earlier prison administration failure, Barton did not get the flu shot inmates should have received.
On February 5, Barton was brought to Salem Health Hospital, where he died the following day. Although the medical examiner did not perform an autopsy, Barton had a gallon or more of MRSA-infected fluid removed from his chest. He went into multiple organ failure. The lawsuit also states he was malnourished and had bedsores upon admission.
Brother Not Informed
Barton’s brother did not learn of his death from the DOC, according to the lawsuit. Instead, he found out Barton was dead in July 2019, a year and a half later. It was via the organization Disability Rights Oregon (DRO) that Brown learned of Barton’s passing. It was a prison employee and an inmate assistant who informed this civil rights group of the circumstances of Barton’s death.
The attorney for DRO said its investigation found that Barton’s “severe cognitive disabilities made it impossible for him to advocate for his own needs or understand and follow medical advice and orders.” He added that Barton’s treatable illness was ignored and permitted to worsen until Mr. Barton’s death, which he termed “gruesome.”
DRO’s report on the Barton case finds that prison officials responded to his death in a “hush-hush” manner.
The Internal Review Finds Coverup
The DOC’s internal review found that prison staff appeared to try to cover up the circumstances of Barton’s death, fearing they would face legal consequences. Within four days of his demise, prison employees failed to order an autopsy and disposed of his body promptly. They also got rid of video footage and threw out documents relating to Barton’s illness and death.
In related matters, the DOC investigation found the infirmary was “extremely ill-constructed” for accommodating influenza, pneumonia, and sepsis patients. The report concludes that Barton’s death resulted from a system failure at the prison.
Barton was scheduled for release on November 1, 2020, after completing his sentence for a bank robbery conviction.
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