Legal Aid Justice Center continues push for adequate inmate care

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FLUVANNA COUNTY, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- The ongoing legal battle between the Legal Aid Justice Center and Virginia Department of Corrections to keep women safe inside the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women has spanned years.

Angela Ciolfi, the Director of Litigation and Advocacy with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the DOC needs to provide ethical health care to inmates, and if they can't, perhaps the Commonwealth needs to re-evaluate the criminal justice system.

"The Commonwealth is locking up too many people for too long," said Ciolfi. "If we can't afford to keep them safe and meet their health care needs, then we can't afford our outsized criminal justice system."

In 2012, the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit against officials with the DOC. A settlement was reached in 2014 and approved by the court in 2016, to create changes at the Fluvanna Correctional Center.

"Under the settlement agreement, the prison is required to meet over 20 standards that would demonstrate that they're providing a constitutionally adequate level of care," said Ciolfi. "And they simply are not."

As part of the settlement, the prison must allow a compliance monitor to visit at least four times a year. Ciolfi says they haven't seen enough change.

"The response from the Department of Corrections has been extremely disappointing," said Ciolfi. "They have tried to deflect their responsibility onto the contractor or women themselves and refuse to believe the complaints of the women, just because they are prisoners."

The legal team said the settlement is proving ineffective because inmates continue to die behind bars. Ciolfi said that over the past two months, three preventable deaths have occurred at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

One of the inmates to die was 38-year-old Deanna Niece on July 25, 2017.

"She died in her cell," said Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. "There was no stretcher available to take her to medical, and there was no oxygen available. The nurses had to send a correctional officer across the entire building compound to try to get a stretcher and bring it back. By the time the stretcher was back, she wasn't able to be transported. She passed away in her cell."

According to a court filing, these circumstances are "frighteningly similar" to the death of Carolyn Liberato, who died just four days before Niece. Liberato was 70 years old and serving time for a murder conviction.

"In the weeks leading up to her death, Carolyn Liberato's blood pressure had multiple high readings," said Ciolfi. "The day before her death, she went seeking medical care because she was having chest pain and difficulty breathing. Later in the wee hours of the morning, she was unable to breathe and there was no oxygen available in the building and she passed away."

Niece's mother, Tena Niece, said that Deanna told staff on three separate occasions that she couldn't breathe and was having pains in her chest, but nurses gave her water and sent her to her cell.

The legal team says another inmate had her leg amputated from lack of antibiotics, while another overdosed on seizure medication.

"How many years, how many contractors, how many women have to die before the Department of Corrections gets serious about health care," asked Ciolfi.

In September of 2017, The Legal Aid Justice Center filed a memorandum with the court, holding the DOC accountable for not carrying out the requirements of the settlement agreement.

The legal team says they plan to ask the court to impose fines and implement an operations director at the prison, if the court finds that the Department of Corrections has not fulfilled its duties.

A court date is set for June 2018.

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