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TEXARKANA, Texas — A woman who died of meningitis less than a week after an ambulance took her from the Bi-State jail to a local hospital complained for months of a constant headache, a lump in her neck, dizziness, blurry vision and numbness in her legs, according to a lawsuit filed in a Texarkana federal court this week.
The suit filed Wednesday morning on behalf of Holly Barlow-Austin's estate, her mother, Mary Margaret Mathis, and her husband, Michael Glenn Austin, names as defendants Bowie County, jail management company LaSalle Corrections and multiple LaSalle medical staffers.
Bowie County Judge Bobby Howell declined to comment about the specifics of the case.
"There is not anything I can say on any pending litigation," Howell said. "We will look to LaSalle to vigorously defend it."
LaSalle Corrections Public Information Officer Steve Giddings said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
"Unfortunately, I must defer public comment at this time. Our company policy prohibits comment due to pending litigation. I can say that LaSalle Corrections is firmly committed to the health and welfare of those in our care. We are deeply committed to delivering high-quality, responsive services in safe and humane environments" Giddings said.
Barlow-Austin, 47, was arrested on a motion to revoke a misdemeanor probation the night of April 5, 2019, according to the complaint filed by Seattle, Washington, lawyer Erik Heipt and Texarkana lawyer David Carter. The complaint states that at the time of her arrest, Barlow-Austin was HIV positive but was taking medication to address that diagnosis, an anti-depressant and an anti-fungal medicine meant to prevent an infection like cryptococcal meningitis.
The complaint alleges jail staff failed to provide Barlow-Austin her medication for days after her arrest and that it was not routinely administered.
According to the complaint, Barlow-Austin complained within a week of her arrest to nursing staff of pain in her head, a mass in her neck and other troubling symptoms but was not once seen by a doctor during her roughly two-months in Bowie County custody from April 5, 2019, to June 15, 2019. The complaint alleges that Barlow-Austin was unable to stand, unable to see, disoriented and in dire need of medical attention by the time 911 was called June 11, 2019.
"Defendants' unconstitutional actions include denying Holly Barlow-Austin vital prescription medication, failing to monitor and treat her life-threatening medical needs, failing to transport her to the hospital until it was too late to save her life, housing her in deplorable and inhumane conditions of confinement, depriving her of water, forcing her to endure extreme and pointless pain and suffering, causing her death, and robbing her surviving family members of their relationship with her," the complaint states.
A history of lawsuits
LaSalle has been sued multiple times in the last five years concerning inmate deaths at the Bi-State jail in downtown Texarkana.
The in-custody death of Morgan Angerbauer in 2016 resulted in a criminal charge and jail time for a licensed vocational nurse employed by LaSalle who pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. Angerbauer banged on the door of her medical observation cell for hours before she died of diabetic ketoacidosis July 1, 2016. That former nurse is the only LaSalle employee to have faced criminal charges in connection with a jail-related death in Bowie County, despite a documented history by LaSalle nursing and jail staff of falsifying records in multiple cases.
About a year before Angerbauer died, Michael Sabbie was deemed to be feigning his symptoms of shortness of breath shortly before a jailer slammed him to the floor as he headed toward a phone. Multiple officers piled on top of him and he was pepper sprayed as he shouted "I can't breathe," repeatedly. Sabbie was found dead in his one-man cell the following morning. Civil lawsuits in Sabbie's and Angerbauer's cases settled out of court.
"What happened to Holly Barlow-Austin was not an isolated incident," the complaint alleges. "She is just the latest victim of a greedy corporate culture that sees inmates as dollar signs and puts profits over people's lives. For years, LaSalle has been neglecting and abusing inmates, disregarding their fundamental constitutional rights, and engaging in other cruel and inhumane acts and practices. This case goes to the very heart of everything that's wrong with the privatization of America's county jails."
Barlow-Austin battled addiction. She had a history of misdemeanor arrests and one felony conviction for drug possession. In August 2018, she was placed on a misdemeanor probation and later that year a motion to revoke her probation was filed. She was arrested April 5, 2019, on the probation warrant and on May 3, 2019, she received a sentence of 120 days with 59 days credit for time she'd already served in connection with the case. She never finished serving her time.
Barlow-Austin walked into the Bowie County jail on her own steam the night of her arrest and her blood pressure at intake was normal, according to the complaint.
Allegations of medical neglect
Michael Austin brought his wife's prescribed medicines to the Bowie County jail on April 8. According to the complaint, the prescriptions were current and in their original containers. But it would be about four days before she received her HIV medication and even longer before she was given a dose of the anti-fungal drug she needed. By April 17, the first time she received the anti-fungal, Barlow-Austin had already begun complaining of a headache, dizziness, a knot on the side of her neck and problems with numbness and mobility in her legs, according to the complaint.
Barlow-Austin was brought in a wheelchair to a jail visit with her husband April 30. That day her blood pressure was allegedly logged as being somewhat high.
On May 2, Barlow-Austin was seen by a caseworker with Community Healthcore. She reported that her right arm and leg were often numb, that her blood pressure was high, that she was dizzy and had been passing out. The caseworker addressed concerns with Michelle Arnold, a registered nurse and LaSalle Health Services Administrator.
"Defendant Arnold callously responded that Ms. Barlow-Austin 'pretends to be weak' and 'knows how to play the sickly role,'" the complaint alleges.
On May 3, 2019, the day her probation was revoked and she received a sentence of jail time, Barlow-Austin "fainted and hit her head causing a hematoma to the left side of her face" while getting ready to go to court, the complaint alleges. Later that day, she was seen by a LaSalle-employed family nurse practitioner, defendant Steven Foltz.
The complaint alleges Foltz should have arranged for her to be seen by a doctor "at a minimum" given her worsening symptoms and increasingly high blood pressure. Foltz allegedly reduced the strength of the anti-fungal medication Barlow-Austin was prescribed.
"Ms. Barlow-Austin was not evaluated by any level of medical provider for over two weeks following this May 3rd visit. Despite her extremely serious medical needs, not a single vital sign was taken during that two-week time frame," the complaint states.
Medical records from Barlow-Austin's outside healthcare provider received by LaSalle medical staff May 13, 2019, allegedly indicated she was "very immunocompromised."
Barlow-Austin submitted medical request forms complaining of "an extreme headache" and other issues as the days passed. Her husband's attempts to convey his concerns about his wife's health to LaSalle medical staff were allegedly "brushed aside."
By June 5, 2019, jail staff were allegedly telling Barlow-Austin's husband she was refusing to see him for visits and her Community Healthcore caseworker was told she refused a contact June 6, 2019.
On June 7, 2019, a LaSalle staff member enters Barlow-Austin's cell with a handheld video camera. The clip shows her lying on a mat on the floor of her cell as the staff member asks if shes wants to "see the doctor." Barlow-Austin appears sick and disoriented as she says, "I don't know" before twice repeating, "They don't never do nothing."
The staff member states on the recording that Barlow-Austin refused medical attention.
The next 48 hours
Barlow-Austin's last couple of days in the Bi-State jail are recorded in silent video footage.
"Although the footage has no sound, her relentless pain is clear from both her actions and her facial expressions. Beginning on her first day in the cell, the footage shows her constantly holding her head with both hands, rubbing her forehead, wrapping/tying a scarf around her head, moaning, or grimacing in pain," the complaint states. "It is also clearly evident from the footage that Ms. Barlow-Austin has gone blind."
Barlow-Austin appears weak, unable to stand, thin and emaciated. She can be seen on the footage repeatedly calling out as LaSalle staff walk past. Barlow-Austin doesn't see cups of water when they are placed in the slot in her cell door or on the floor inside her cell. She crawls and scoots in the cell with an empty cup in her hand, an indication of unquenched thirst alleged in the lawsuit.
On June 9, 2019, in the evening, food and a cup of water are placed in the cell.
"She has no clue that there's food and water on the floor of her cell. Shortly before 7 p.m., she sits up and accidentally kicks the water cup over with her foot. She quickly grabs the cup, tries to take a drink from it, realizes it's empty, and lies down in a fetal position."
About an hour-and-a-half later, a jailer enters the cell with a small paper cup of water and hands it to Barlow-Austin.
"The guard needs to guide the water into her hand (because she can't see) and she immediately starts drinking it," the complaint states. "This is the only water she's had during the 12 hours she's been in the medical observation cell."
That night Barlow-Austin can be seen on the video footage in distress.
"At no point during the night of June 9th (2019) does a single nurse enter Ms. Barlow-Austin's medical observation cell to check her vital signs, evaluate her, treat her or provide her medication," the complaint states.
The following day, a guard opens the cell and an inmate enters with a cup of water. The inmate directs the cup into Barlow-Austin's hand and covers his face with his shirt.
"The small cup of water was only the second cup of water she'd had in the 16 hours she'd been in the medical observation cell. She was dehydrated and malnourished. She was wearing the same filthy, soiled clothing that she'd been wearing since at least the 7th of June and the odor in her cell was noxious," the complaint states.
The hours of video attached as exhibits to the complaint show Barlow-Austin writhing in pain as she clutches an empty water cup. On the morning of June 10, 2019, video shows a LaSalle nurse come to the door of Barlow-Austin's cell and knock. Barlow-Austin responds by extending a hand holding an empty water cup toward the door.
A guard opens the food tray slot but the nurse doesn't enter the cell.
"This brief encounter is reflected in an 8:50 a.m. progress note written by LVN Markesha Jones, a defendant in this case, which states Ms. Barlow-Austin was yelling 'water' and 'give me some water.' Yet preposterously, LVN Jones also wrote that she 'offered' water and medication and that Ms. Barlow-Austin 'refused' to take either."
Other nursing notes that day allegedly refer to Barlow-Austin as "exhibiting abnormal behavior" including yelling, "I need a fireman. I can't hear the fireman." Members of the nursing staff allegedly notified Arnold, the health services administrator, about Barlow-Austin's condition.
"Once again, however, not one of these so-called healthcare providers did anything in response to her ongoing medical crisis," the complaint states.
The complaint notes that Barlow-Austin is unable to use the toilet in her cell and lies in her own urine.
On the night of June 10, 2019, Licensed Vocational Nurse A. Hughes (no first name known) enters the cell and takes Barlow-Austin's blood pressure.
"It is the first time a nurse has entered in the 38 hours she's been in this purported medical observation cell. She proceeds to check Ms. Barlow-Austin's vitals for the first time in over two weeks," the complaint states.
Barlow-Austin's blood pressure is allegedly documented by Hughes at 177/123 with a heart rate of 130 beats per minute.
"If these values come along with symptoms such as headache, nausea, blurry vision or chest pain, seek immediate help and call 911. You might be in a life-threatening situation," warns the website bloodpressureok.com.
According to the complaint and bloodpressureok.com, the reading indicates a "hypertensive crisis" and warrants immediate emergency medical care.
"But it doesn't. Following the nurse's visit, no one brings Ms. Barlow-Austin any food or water. She remains in the same squalid jail cell, with no blanket or pillow — barely able to crawl, blind, weak, lethargic, uncoordinated, unbalanced, disoriented, gaunt, shrunken," the complaint states. "Her anorexic appearance resembles a starving prisoner of war."
June 11, 2019
At approximately 5:45 a.m., a correctional officer enters Barlow-Austin's cell with LaSalle Assistant Warden Robert Page. The guard demonstrates that Barlow-Austin can't see by waving his hand in front of her face, but no action is taken. About two hours later, a jailer and a nurse enter the cell and struggle to lift Barlow-Austin into a wheelchair.
The complaint alleges that while in the nurse's office, Barlow-Austin asks, "Where am I? Why am I here," as she begs for water but is physically unable to hold a cup. Nursing staff attempt to draw blood but are unable because they cannot find a vein, allegedly indicating severe dehydration, according to the complaint.
"She's visibly malnourished. Her pupils are not reactive to light," and 911 is called, the complaint states. "Ms. Barlow-Austin didn't suddenly take a turn for the worse on the morning of June 11, 2019. Her medical condition warranted hospitalization long before then. By the time LaSalle finally called 911, it was too late to save her life."
A family in the dark
Following her transport to a Texarkana hospital June 11, 2019, Barlow-Austin's family was not notified. On June 15, 2019, Barlow-Austin's husband attempted to visit her in the jail and was told she was no longer there. Jail staff allegedly refused to give him further explanation. Michael Austin reportedly called Sheriff James Prince who told him his wife was in the hospital, "gravely ill." When Barlow-Austin's family arrived at the hospital, they weren't allowed to see her because she was still in custody. Prince arranged for Barlow-Austin to be released for "medical reasons," court records show. Her family sat with her until she died June 17, 2019.
No official investigation
Because Barlow-Austin was not in Bowie County custody at the time of her death, the Bowie County Sheriff's Office did not file an in-custody death report with the Texas Attorney General's office as is required when an imate dies in the jail. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited Bowie County in 2019 for failing to properly document the prescription medication Barlow-Austin's husband brought to the jail for her a couple of days after her April 5 arrest.
Unlike as happens with in-custody deaths, no outside law enforcement agency was tasked with an investigation in Barlow-Austin's case as she was released from custody June 15, 2019, while in the hospital and died out of custody two days later June 17, 2019.
Barlow-Austin's family seeks justice
"Holly's death has left her family heartbroken and devastated. There are no words to capture the magnitude of their grief," Heipt said. "They cannot conceive of how something like this could've happened to Holly. They want justice and accountability for her senseless suffering and death. And they want to make sure that this doesn't happen again."
The suit filed names Bowie County, LaSalle Corrections and local LaSalle Medical Director Timothy Reynolds, who also owns and operates a number of Healthcare Express urgent care clinics in the Texarkana and surrounding areas, as defendants. Nurse practitioners Steven Foltz and James McCann, LaSalle Health Services Administrator Michelle Arnold, vocational and practical nurses Tiffany Hill, Markesha Jones, A. Hughes and B. Cery are also listed as defendants.
The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Schroeder III in the Texarkana Division of the Eastern District of Texas.