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Starvation death of Chicago-area inmate raises questions about jail’s responsibility

This news story was published on January 20, 2012.
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By John Keilman and Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Funeral home workers cleaned out Lyvita Gomes’ hotel room Thursday. They found some jewelry, an image of the Virgin Mary and photos that recalled her family in India and her days as a successful, sharply-dressed airline trainer.

They also found stacks of mail, much of it unopened, going back seven years. In that pile was the jury summons that marked the beginning of Gomes’ fatal downward spiral.

As a noncitizen, Gomes, 52, wasn’t even eligible to serve on a jury, but ignoring the summons started a chain of events that brought her to the Lake County Jail in December. There, while showing clear signs of mental illness, she launched a mystifying hunger strike that lasted 15 days and ultimately took her life.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office is defending the care she received in jail, saying it relied on its medical staff’s advice and did the best it could in a bad situation. But some relatives, friends and community activists say officials should have done more to head off the tragedy.

“How in the United States do we allow somebody to die from lack of food and water?” asked Madhvi Bahuguna, a friend and former co-worker.

Gomes grew up in a suburb of Mumbai, and her brother Oydsteven Gomes described her as optimistic, helpful and high-achieving. She studied biochemistry and education in college, wrote a math textbook and took a job as a Pan Am flight attendant in 1986.

Later, after Delta took over Pan Am, she was promoted to in-flight training supervisor and in 1999 was nominated for the airline’s prestigious Chairman’s Club award. Friends say Gomes was outgoing and sociable in those years, though she never married or had children.

Federal immigration officials said Gomes got a U.S. visa in 2004, and her friends said she moved to Atlanta to work at Delta headquarters. But there, one former co-worker said, she began to show signs of mental instability.

She never confided any psychological problems to her family, her brother said, even after Delta laid her off about five years ago (the airline did not respond to questions). She moved to Illinois, and in 2007 used her still-valid visa and other identification to get a driver’s license, according to the secretary of State’s office.

The license put her into the Lake County jury pool, and she received notice to report for duty last July 5. The summons noted that noncitizens cannot serve, but to claim the exemption, Gomes would have had to document her immigration status. It’s not clear if her visa had expired by that point.

Gomes did not respond to the summons, records show, prompting a judge to order her to court to explain her absence. She didn’t show up for that, either, so on Oct. 12, in accordance with county practice, a deputy showed up to arrest her.

Gomes claimed she had straightened out the matter by phone, according to a sheriff’s report. But the warrant was still active, so the deputy told Gomes she was under arrest.

Gomes didn’t go quietly, the report says. She refused to offer her hands for the cuffs and struggled as the deputy led her to his car. That earned her a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge.

She spent two days in the Lake County Jail, where officials learned her visa had expired. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said the agency started deportation proceedings and released her.

Lake County soon dropped the jury duty case, but the resisting arrest charge lingered. Gomes didn’t show up for two more court hearings, and once again a judge ordered her arrest. On Dec. 14, Vernon Hills police brought her to the Lake County Jail.

Chief Wayne Hunter said that like all inmates, Gomes received a mental health screening upon arrival. The results prompted a referral to a psychiatrist, who discussed medication with Gomes. She refused to take it, Hunter said.

The court appointed Gomes an attorney, who noticed strange behavior at a Dec. 19 hearing. Greg Ticsay of the Lake County Public Defender’s Office said Gomes apparently thought she was in court for tennis lessons, a delusion that prompted his office to seek a hearing on her mental fitness.

What his office didn’t know, Ticsay said, was that Gomes was not eating or drinking.

Hunter said Gomes refused food and water from her first day in jail, saying she was on a hunger strike but declining to give a reason. Jail policy calls for the medical staff to be notified immediately about such protests, and Hunter said Gomes’ health was carefully monitored.

On Dec. 21, after showing signs of weight loss, Gomes was moved to the jail medical unit. There, Hunter said, staffers from Nashville-based Correct Care Solutions, which has a $2 million annual contract to provide the jail’s medical care, checked her vital signs every four hours.

Patrick Cummiskey, a Correct Care executive vice president, would not comment on Gomes’ case, citing federal privacy laws. But in general, he said, staffers look for trouble in a hunger striker’s pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and respiratory rate — in keeping with industry standards.

The company has been criticized for its handling of another inmate who stopped eating and drinking. Last year, it paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that its nurses failed to properly care for a mentally ill man in Alexandria, Va., who died of dehydration after refusing food and water.

As Gomes’ strike went on, jail officials couldn’t persuade her to eat, Hunter said. They could have sought a court order to force feed her — unlike state prisons, legal experts say, county jails need a judge’s approval to take such a step — but Hunter said she appeared stable.

“We have a very competent medical staff,” he said. “I’m not in a position to second-guess what they say.”

On Dec. 27, the jail told the public defender’s office about Gomes’ refusal to eat — the first her lawyers had heard of the hunger strike, Ticsay said. An attorney went to the jail in a failed attempt to convince Gomes to accept food and water, he said.

Ticsay said the public defender’s office tried to get her hospitalized and worked with the jail to speed up her fitness hearing. But the hearing never took place: On Dec. 29, after the medical staff determined Gomes’ life was in danger, she was transferred to Waukegan’s Vista Medical Center East, where she died five days later.

“The impression we got is that when she got to the hospital, her condition was so grave there was nothing they could do,” Ticsay said.

Vista officials declined to speak about Gomes’ care, and Hunter said he didn’t know the details because a judge released her from custody after the transfer. But Dr. Catherine Glunz, medical director of the Eating and Weight Disorders Program at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said prolonged starvation and dehydration can cause the body to reach a point of no return.

“This is not good for your body, so it’s not easy for your body to recover,” she said.

Hunter said his staff was shaken by Gomes’ death — the jail’s first hunger strike fatality — but he doesn’t know what they could have done differently. Sheriff Mark Curran defended the jail’s track record of dealing with troubled inmates.

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One Response to Starvation death of Chicago-area inmate raises questions about jail’s responsibility

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    Peter L Reply Report comment

    January 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    I’m so sorry for this woman’s death. She sounds like a very interesting and intelligent person who was caught up in American Pig bureaucracy. I’m sorry I couldn’t help her. I think she would have listened to me.