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The El Paso County jail. (Handout)

COLORADO SPRINGS — A 48-year-old man found unresponsive at the El Paso County jail in April was the fourth inmate to die there so far this year — putting 2022 among the jail’s deadliest years of the past decade with seven months to go. 

Cristo Cannett was the seventh inmate to die in roughly seven months at the jail, which holds roughly 1,200 inmates, making it Colorado’s largest.

The quickening pace comes as Sheriff Bill Elder touts improved conditions at the facility, from expanded health care to stepped-up patrols by deputies alert for signs that inmates could be suicidal or in medical distress. 

“When people die in the jail, it is one of the most troubling things that I’ve dealt with because people that are in jail should not be dying,” Elder said. He said many of the deaths were from natural causes, which he attributed to inmates’ pre-existing health problems. He said suicide was less prevalent than in years past, with no deaths by suicide since last April compared to five in the three-year span from 2019 to 2021. Six of eight deaths from the past 12 months were from natural causes, autopsy reports show. 

Autopsies are still pending for two of the inmates, including Cannett, who was found unresponsive in his cell April 26. 

An online fundraising page — set up to raise money to hire a lawyer for a potential lawsuit — said Cannett died of a ruptured ulcer and blamed medical neglect, raising fresh questions about the quality of medical care for jail inmates. He was arrested on a warrant at Penrose Hospital, where hoped to get treated for back pain, and died at the jail less than 24 hours later, the fundraiser’s organizer and Cannett’s niece, Alina Naranjo said. 

Cristo Cannett, 48, died in the El Paso County jail April 26. (Photo provided by Alina Naranjo)

A spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment.

The jail reported five deaths overall last year, four in 2020 and five in 2019. The number of deaths remained consistent even as the jail’s population dropped amid the pandemic, falling by several hundred inmates from a pre-pandemic high of more than 1,700.

The deaths come at a time when jails across the country are grappling with inmate populations wracked by sickness, mental illness and addictions that often go untreated behind bars, and after a global pandemic that turned them into a breeding ground for the coronavirus. 

At the El Paso County jail, the September 2021 death of William Johnson revived claims of substandard care by the jail’s for-profit health care contractor, WellPath of Nashville, Tennessee. The company, formerly known as Correct Care Solutions, has attracted numerous complaints in El Paso County in past years and has a history of lawsuits in multiple states over complaints about dying of thirst, a lack of mental health care and withholding prescription medicine.

A spokeswoman for WellPath did not return several interview requests from The Colorado Sun.

Johnson, 36, died after the jail’s medical staff failed to provide him the adequate dosage of his prescribed medications for at least 13 days, his family has alleged. 

“I am 100% convinced that if my brother had been given his medications, according to the doctor’s orders, he’d still be alive today,” said Crystal Craig, Johnson’s older sister. “I feel that the substandard care that he received resulted in his death.”

His parents have filed a claim with the county for $581,870, accusing the jail and WellPath of failing to provide access to the minimum standard of care, allegedly resulting in his death, according to a copy of the claim notice obtained by The Sun. Such demands are often a precursor to legal action.  

Another case involves a 41-year-old woman who told jail staff she was withdrawing from heroin and methamphetamine. Staff monitored her withdrawal symptoms, but two days later, deputies found Laura Gibbs unresponsive, lying on her side on the bottom bunk in her cell, according to an autopsy and a news release from the sheriff’s office. When her clothing was cut away from her body as staff tried to resuscitate her, there was a small green plastic bag containing a white powdery substance beneath her bra. 

A third inmate complained to jail staff about swelling in his feet and genitals shortly before he died. It’s unclear what care Leroy Eckoff, 74, received, though the county coroner’s office determined he died of cardiovascular disease. 

The jail has not reported more than five in-custody deaths in a single year in more than a decade, according to a Reuters investigation documenting jail deaths across the county

The deaths coincide with El Paso County officials’ search for ways to end the jail’s reliance on for-profit medical providers.

Elder, who oversees the county jail and the services provided to the 1,200 inmates — many who cycle in and out of custody —  says the care is “adequate,” but for years he has tried to replace the county’s contract with WellPath with a community-based system relying on local mental health care services and health care providers. The sheriff’s office has relied on private contractors to provide inmate medical care at the jail since long before Elder took office in 2015.

El Paso County signed a one-year contract with WellPath, valued at $8.7 million, in 2019 after cutting ties with the controversial correctional health care company two years prior, when it was known as Correct Care Solutions. Elder said the contract was a stopgap until he could create a new community model and it has been renewed every year since. 

“I continue to push that agenda as hard as I can,” Elder said. “It’s just hard. It’s like trying to push a rope uphill.”

He cited funding concerns as well as challenges in finding several companies to work together to provide mental health care services. 

Still, he said he believes the care provided by WellPath is “probably some of the best medical care that most of these inmates ever see.” 

With eight months left in his term, he’s running out of time to implement what he believes would be “the best possible model” for the jail and continuity of care for inmates.

“I am hopeful that I can get the idea across to people that are willing to continue to have the conversation after I’m gone,” he said. 

Jails have a much higher turnover rate than prisons and will often book people who are in distress or experiencing withdrawal symptoms that require close monitoring and specialized treatment. Nearly 300 people are booked in and released from the El Paso County jail each day, Elder said. 

Most are waiting to post bail — or if they can’t afford it, waiting to go to trial or enter a plea deal — or are serving short sentences.

Lior Gideon, a criminal justice professor at New York University’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the deaths at the El Paso County jail weren’t surprising, pointing to national statistics. 

About half of deaths in jails across the country from 2008 to 2018 were due to illnesses, such as heart disease, liver disease and cancer, according to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of people who died in local jails from alcohol or drug intoxications nearly quadrupled during that period, the bureau reported.

The hectic environment of jails, coupled with staff shortages, make it difficult for local jails to provide quality care to an underserved population, he said. 

“Corrections are in the business of securing people behind high walls, barbed wires and locked gates. They are not in the business of health,” he said.

A total of 1,120 inmates died in jails across the country in 2018, an increase of about 2% from the year before, according to the latest data provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It was the highest number of deaths reported in local jails since the bureau began tracking such data more than two decades ago. 

Staff shortages pose a challenge in providing quality health care behind bars, too.

“The problem is not a lot of people want to go to work in correctional facilities. When they go to nursing school or medical school or dental school, they don’t see themselves as someone who will go and work in jail or prison. So this is where those corporations are coming in and they are filling that gap, for better or for worse,” Gideon said.

The problems in jails were only compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which left inmates with few protections against the dangerous disease, Gideon said. 

“They’re bringing it into jail, and it’s kind of like you’re throwing a match in a hay field,” Gideon said. “It’s going to catch.”

After 64-year-old Wayne Baca died of COVID-19 complications at the jail last September, the virus contributed to two more deaths in the jail the same month, autopsies show.

In October 2020, the jail became the site of one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in the state, with more than 1,000 inmates testing positive for the virus. The sheriff’s office was later sued by the ACLU for “deliberate indifference” to COVID-19 risks by not providing masks to inmates.

After each death at the El Paso County jail, a team of investigators conducts interviews with deputies and medical staff to identify ways to improve protocols and identify any misconduct. No misconduct has been found in relation to any of the deaths in the last year, Elder said. 

“We make sure we try to get to the bottom of every single day and try to figure out, what can we do better? What can medical do better?” Elder said. “We actually are working fairly well. Right now our medical provider has really stepped up and is doing some things that are helping us cope with this.”

Among WellPath’s changes was hiring a health services administrator who is “extremely proactive,” Elder said. It also started to offer large incentives, including relocation packages, for nurses who will work in the county jail, he said.

Elder said he has pushed for a lower jail population, which is now about 1,200. The city of Denver houses an average of 1,100 inmates at the larger of its two facilities, making El Paso County’s jail the largest in the state.

He said he is also working with former Undersheriff Pete Carey, who now serves as the county’s executive director of the justice services department, to increase the number of personal recognizance bonds for those who would otherwise be unable to afford bail.

“It shouldn’t be a death sentence”

William Johnson struggled with addictions throughout his life, but at 36, he was on track to get clean, “move on with his life” and be successful, his family said. 

His partner, Lisa Johnson, said the couple had planned on a future together and spoke of getting married and buying a house. She recalled his selfless nature, and how they once danced together in the aisles of Walmart during a shopping trip.

William Johnson, 36, died at the El Paso County jail in September 2021. (Photo provided by Crystal Craig)

He had a strong support system involving group therapy sessions, his doctor, and his family, Lisa Johnson said. He was on a strict regimen of medication to treat anxiety and a seizure disorder, and he used methadone to treat a substance abuse disorder. She often helped him arrange his pills in a pillbox, she said.

In April 2020, William Johnson was cited with driving under the influence, a summons shows. He accepted a plea agreement and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, according to court records. 

His time behind bars brought anxiety for Lisa Johnson. “If he doesn’t get his medicine, he’s gonna die,” she recalled telling his attorney after the sentencing hearing.

His older sister said he feared what would happen if he didn’t receive his “life-saving medications” while serving his sentence.

“It was a giant fear of my family and my brother that when he went to jail, he might not get his medications on his very strict regimen that he was on,” Craig said. 

Johnson was booked into the El Paso County jail Aug. 30. He was found unresponsive in his cell less than a month later, on Sept. 27.

During the six-month wait for her brother’s autopsy results, Craig grasped for answers. She formed a Facebook group, “El Paso County Jail Death- Support Group for Families of Victims” from her California home, hoping to connect with others and find clarity.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. He’s not the only one who is dying in his 30s. There are people dying there all of the time,’” she said. “I started to create these posts in these groups to go, let’s sound the alarm here. This is not OK.”

The county coroner’s office ultimately determined Johnson likely died of a seizure in his sleep and that polypharmacy — the use of multiple medications — and COVID-19 contributed to his death.

Craig believes it was the “substandard care” provided to her brother that resulted in his death and hopes his death brings more oversight and compassion for inmates.

Medical records from the jail, cited in his autopsy, show that Johnson was placed on a benzodiazepine withdrawal protocol and started to become agitated, had hallucinations, showed bizarre behavior and fell into a “catatonia-like state,” consistent with such withdrawal, according to the autopsy.  

During his month in jail, he was given more than a dozen prescriptions, including a daily dose of methadone and two pills a day to treat a seizure disorder, the autopsy shows. 

His family alleges repeated errors by the jail in dispensing the medication, saying Johnson received no medications or the wrong dosage on 13 days of his sentence, including for several days before his death, their claim notice shows.

Johnson pleaded with jail staff about his medical needs and was ignored, Miller wrote in the notice of claims on behalf of Keith and Peggy Johnson.

“The government displayed deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of Mr. Johnson and it resulted in unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and torturous suffering,” he wrote.

In an interview, Elder declined to comment on Johnson’s case, citing pending litigation. 

Craig hopes her brother’s death brings more oversight and compassion for inmates’ medical needs at the El Paso County jail. 

“The truth is that he did struggle with drug addiction throughout his life. But he was trying, and he was always trying and he hated his drug addiction,” Craig said. “The fact that somebody else took away that hope for our family and for him, they need to be held accountable. Just because you’re in jail, it shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...