Keeping 'em in Stitches

Damon Dreckmeier's blood was coming out both ends of him, and it had been coming out for hours.

Vomited blood ran out of his mouth, down his chin and over his neck; it stained the seat of his pants. A nauseating, numbing feeling began in his stomach and gradually spread through his body. He had lost so much blood his fingers became useless and his eyes lost their focus.

Dreckmeier was dying.
It was obvious to Dreckmeier. And it was obvious to his roommates.
Yet none of them was able to get him medical attention.

That's because Dreckmeier and his roommates were inmates in a Maricopa County jail, and despite their calls for help over a three-hour period the night of March 2, detention officers ignored them.

When Dreckmeier was finally taken seriously, he was rushed to the county hospital, where it took four pints of blood to replace what he had lost.

He was sent to jail because he had stolen a presigned check from a business and had cashed it for $4,800 using a faked driver's license. He pleaded guilty to faking the ID; the check charge was dropped when he promised to pay back the money. He had been sentenced to four years' probation and 111 days in jail.

In another part of the country, he might have served out that time uneventfully. But Dreckmeier had a double helping of bad luck: He has a degenerative but controllable digestive disorder, Crohn's disease, and he was sentenced to do his time in a place that takes pride in being the most inhospitable jail in the country.

Because the county jail's medical staff was unable--or unwilling--to supply Dreckmeier his prescribed medication, which keeps Crohn's disease symptoms at bay, he was hospitalized four times during his brief incarceration.

On the fourth trip, surgeons opened Dreckmeier up from sternum to pubic bone. After that operation, he developed an abscess, which had to be excised in a second surgery--and a fifth hospitalization--at a private hospital.

Because jail medical personnel couldn't come up with pills--they would have cost less than $400 for his entire incarceration--Maricopa County taxpayers will pay Dreckmeier's medical bill, estimated at about $300,000.

You may pay even more when Dreckmeier sues the county for his treatment in jail.

For weeks, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has bragged that a new report from the federal Department of Justice will refute the charges that feds made earlier about his jails.

After investigations begun in the fall of 1995, the Department of Justice found that inmates in the county jails--two thirds of whom await trial under an assumption of innocence--were abused by detention officers, that such abuse was covered up, and that inmates were subject to inadequate medical care.

An investigator's report alleging substandard medical and psychiatric services ran to 57 pages.

Arpaio has maintained that the Department of Justice got its investigation wrong, that the abuse was just inmate fiction. Meanwhile, the county organization that runs the jail's medical clinics, Correctional Health Services, claims that a larger budget and new policies have resulted in improvements which have impressed independent auditors.

In other words, everything's fine in the big house.
Damon Dreckmeier's recent experience contradicts that claim. And documents obtained by New Times as well as the assertions of former medical staffers suggest that Dreckmeier's treatment was consistent with a pattern of shoddy medical work (see accompanying story).

It's the same pattern the Department of Justice found nearly two years ago: inadequate staffing of physicians; diagnosis and treatment by nurses unqualified for such work; unreasonable delays for inmates needing medical attention; capricious delivery of medications.

It's a pattern that continues to leave the county open to liability lawsuits.

And it's a pattern that nearly killed Damon Dreckmeier.

Despite his medical problem, Dreckmeier was a normal, healthy-looking 22-year-old when he entered the county jail.

As he sits in a hospital bed awaiting yet another surgery, the former warehouse manager looks like a concentration-camp victim: knobby knees and skinny limbs and an emaciated torso crisscrossed with scars.

For days, brownish liquid had seeped from an abscess in his abdomen through a tube attached to his side. Now that the seeping has stopped, surgeons will cut Dreckmeier open and remove the rest of the brownish goo too thick to ooze out of the tube.

Yet, somehow, Dreckmeier's in a decent mood.
He's grateful when a nurse enters to change his IV bag, and she acknowledges his thanks with a smile and promises to check on him again soon.

The source of his good humor? He's at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-North in a private room, no longer at the mercy of jail nurses and doctors.

In a move even the County Attorney's Office describes as "very rare," Dreckmeier's lawyer, Patti Shelton, convinced a Superior Court judge pro tem to cut Dreckmeier's sentence short by a month and allow him to be moved to the private hospital.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega