Lawsuit to be filed over inmate care

CARSON CITY — The American Civil Liberties will file a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Reno accusing the governor, other state officials and the Department of Corrections with deliberately denying adequate medical care to Ely State Prison inmates.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU outlines how numerous inmates, such as former Coasters manager Patrick Cavanaugh, allegedly suffered excruciating pain but were denied medications and needed surgeries by the prison’s medical staff.

Cavanaugh, who died in 2006, was an insulin-dependent diabetic who was not given medication in the last three years of his life and ended up with gangrene in his limbs, according to Dr. William Noel, a doctor hired by the ACLU who met with and studied the records of 35 Ely inmates.

In his report on medical conditions at the prison, Noel said Cavanaugh was left to die a “slow, painful death” in which there was the “unmistakable smell of putrefying flesh.”

The ACLU seeks to have a federal judge find that the Corrections Department has not provided the 1,000 inmates with adequate medical care and to assign a monitor to oversee care at the maximum-security prison.

“We do not seek any damages,” said Amy Fettig, the Washington-based lawyer for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “We want good medical care for our clients. I hope nothing ever happens to another human being like happened with Patrick Cavanaugh.”

Corrections Director Howard Skolnik predicted Wednesday that the state will prevail in the litigation.

“At this point, we have a strong case,” he said. “The medical care at Ely does meet constitutional standards. Ely is a prison. It is not a hospital. The operations of an infirmary in a prison are different than working in a hospital.”

In a Jan. 23 meeting, the state Board of Prison Commissioners rejected a consent decree sought by the ACLU that voluntarily would have let the federal court oversee prison medical care.

Gov. Jim Gibbons and other commissioners rejected the request after Skolnik and prison medical director Dr. Robert Bannister submitted a report that they said refuted Noel’s findings.

Skolnik said a full-time doctor just had been hired by the prison and the facility now is staffed at all hours by nurses and has two doctors and a physician’s assistant on staff.

Bannister contended that allegations of bad care at Ely were brought by disgruntled medical personnel who have been replaced.

In a December report, Noel, of Boise, Idaho, called the treatment Ely inmates receive “the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering that I have ever encountered in the medical profession.”

Some of his harshest criticism was directed toward the prison for its lack of care for Cavanaugh, who died at age 60. He was serving a life sentence for the murder of Coasters group member Nathaniel “Buster” Wilson. The group had such hits as “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak.”

In his response to Noel’s allegations, Bannister said that Cavanaugh refused medication and that repeated attempts were made to reason with him.

But Fettig said the medical order to cut off Cavanaugh from insulin was not signed. She added that he was too ill to make rational decisions and suffered from dementia.

In cases where mentally unstable inmates refuse treatment, there are well-established steps prisons take to force them to comply with medical regimens, she said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or (775) 687-3901.

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