Health care behind bars: Inmate says pleas for help preceded woman's death at San Juan County Adult Detention Center
Editor's note: This is the first installment of The Daily Times' occasional series on health care at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center. Find more stories on this topic at daily-times.com.
FARMINGTON — The death of Sharon Rice Jones at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center is described briefly in an autopsy report produced April 6 by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.
"In the evening of January, 4, 2015, (Jones) had received pain medications and went to bed," the report states. "She awoke two hours later and continued to complain of pain; she was not given additional pain medications. Ms. Jones was found unresponsive early the next morning."
However, according to an inmate who found Jones dead the morning of Jan. 5, the report leaves out important details.
Ashley Thode, the 23-year-old daughter of deceased soldier and Farmington police Sgt. James Thode, said she was in the medical unit the night Jones died.
Thode said she and other inmates requested that nurses check on Jones, who was moaning in pain throughout the night, but the jail staff failed to take their concerns seriously.
"In the cell, we joked: 'It might be my death bed here,'" Thode said. "They don't care."
Thode is one of several former inmates who contacted The Daily Times in the past week to report problems at the detention center.
As reported by The Daily Times, 18 former and current inmates filed a lawsuit April 17 against the detention center claiming jail guards and medical staff ignored their requests for medical care or provided inadequate care.
The claims span a period of several years and are leveled against both the jail's former contracted health care provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies, and current provider, San Juan Regional Medical Center.
The inmates' attorneys, Christian Hatfield and Mitchell Burns, both of Farmington, are requesting court-ordered changes at the jail in policies, procedures, supervision, training and contractual payments for medical services, according to the civil complaint.
Hatfield said Friday that Jones' son retained his law firm after his mother's death, and Hatfield will file a lawsuit on the family's behalf against the jail and hospital in the coming weeks.
"Based on the information we have, we have good reason to believe the death was preventable," Hatfield said.
Detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln said the San Juan County Sheriff's Office has closed its investigation into Jones' death, and no criminal charges will result from it. Investigations into the death of two other inmates — William "Billy" Carter and Jesus Marquez — are ongoing.
Jail administrator Tom Havel said he could not comment on Jones' death at the facility because of the pending litigation.
When asked about Thode's account of Jones' death, Haroon Ahmad, a spokesman for the San Juan Regional Medical Center, said he cannot comment on the specifics of an ongoing lawsuit, but the hospital will defend itself vigorously in court.
"We look forward to presenting our viewpoint in court," Ahmad said.
According to the autopsy report, Jones was found unresponsive the morning of Jan. 5 in the medical ward at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center and transported to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 6 a.m.
Jones suffered from arthritis in her left hip, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, the report states. She had a history of prescription drug and alcohol abuse.
Medical examiners determined the cause of death was sepsis, or blood poisoning, resulting from the bacterium Group A streptococcal.
"That is a relatively treatable cause of death, with antibiotics, and with the proper treatment and care," Hatfield said.
According to jail and court records, Thode was booked into the San Juan County Adult Detention Center at about 7 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 4, on a bench warrant for failure to appear in court.
Thode said, sheepishly, that she was placed in the medical ward at the jail because of her level of intoxication.
"I was drunk that night, honestly, and placed in (pod) 'A' for observation," she said.
A spokesman for the jail said Friday that, for safety and security reasons, he could not say where Thode was incarcerated on the day in question.
Thode said there were about six women in the medical unit with her, and because of limited space, she had to sleep on the floor in a "boat," slang for a plastic bed frame.
She said Jones was "really sweet" and helped her make her bed.
"In the afternoon, she said something about bending over a few days ago," Thode said. "She heard a 'pop' noise."
According to the autopsy report, Jones had been placed in the medical unit a few days before her death for complaints of severe pain in her hip and generalized pain.
Jones was provided her pain medication in the afternoon, Thode said, but complained that it was not working.
Thode said Jones could only lay on one side of her body, and it was painful for her to get up to use the bathroom. She was "moaning and groaning" at lights out, Thode said, and, at one point in the night, Jones urinated on herself.
"She said she didn't want help from me," Thode said. "She was the lady that didn't want help or didn't want to ask for help. I would hear her struggle, and I would try to move her body, switch her to sleep on a different side."
Thode said she and others in the pod asked that a nurse check Jones' vitals, but the guards put off their request.
Thode said a nurse finally did check on Jones, but seemed to believe Jones was being dramatic.
Thode said she woke up the next morning to the other women in the pod yelling: "Sharon! Wake up, Sharon!"
"If they really tried to see what was wrong, maybe, possibly, she would have gotten more help," Thode said. "More pain medication, at least."
According to court records, Jones was being held at the facility on a probation violation related to a January 2014 conviction for battery of a health care worker.
Jones had previously been arrested for vehicle theft and disorderly conduct.
Jones' sister, Carolyn Wojakowski, was reached by telephone on Friday at her home in Topeka, Kan.
She told The Daily Times that Jones had struggled for the past few years with alcohol and substance abuse.
Wojakowski said her younger sister had a troubled childhood and was hospitalized after attempting suicide as a teenager, but she turned her life around.
She attended colleges in Kansas and Illinois, started a career in drafting and eventually moved to Colorado and married J. Scott Jones in 1984. They had two children, Corey and Kristen Jones.
However, Jones was still troubled by issues from her childhood, Wojakowski said, and fell into depression while going through menopause.
In the mid-2000s, Jones' began abusing alcohol and drugs. It became too much for her husband, who divorced her, Wojakowski said.
"She left her family and became homeless," she said. "She had very, very poor choices of male friends."
Wojakowski said that Jones struggled with alcoholism, as well as methamphetamine and crack-cocaine addiction.
Wojakowski said she maintained almost weekly contact with her sister until her death.
"I had talked to Sharon three-and-a-half days before she died," Wojakowski said. "At that point, she told me she was not feeling well, that all she felt like doing was laying around."
Wojakowski said her sister was kind-hearted, despite her personal flaws.