The Washington Post has reported on a lawsuit filed by Budge & Heipt arising from the death of an inmate named Holly Barlow-Austin following her confinement in a privatized jail run by a company known as LaSalle Corrections.
According to the 56-page complaint filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, jail staffers ignored obvious signs of Barlow-Austin’s worsening health, left her in a dirty cell littered with trash and denied her pleas for water during her final hours in detention.
“Her last 48 hours [in custody] were tantamount to torture,” said Erik J. Heipt, the attorney representing Barlow-Austin’s estate and family members. When Barlow-Austin was finally taken to the emergency room on the night of June 10, 2019, she was immediately given an IV and a feeding tube.
“She was beyond saving by the time they took her to the hospital,” Heipt told The Washington Post on Friday. “It wasn’t a situation where you could not think of it as essentially an in-custody death.”
The lawsuit names LaSalle Corrections, the for-profit company that runs the Bi-State Jail, as a defendant, along with Bowie County and individual jail staffers. Neither LaSalle Corrections nor Bowie County officials responded to requests for comment Friday.
When Barlow-Austin was taken into custody on a probation violation April 5, 2019, she had been managing HIV and mental health issues with regular medication and had otherwise healthy vitals, according to the complaint. She was not given her full therapy of medication in the jail, and staff failed to follow up on an outstanding request for her health records for more than a month. Her conditioned worsened over the next several weeks into early June, when she was placed in a medical observation cell.
Heipt obtained video footage of Barlow-Austin’s final 48-hours in custody — which he said was unexpectedly delivered in 2,000 clips less than a minute long.
“The only way I was able to know, for example, that [Holly] only had three small cups of water during 48 hours is because I watched all 48 hours,” Heipt told The Post. “If you look at just the medical records provided by the company, LaSalle, you would have no idea of her blindness, inability to walk, difficulty even crawling or malnourished state.”
Nearly 50 clips viewed by The Post show an emaciated Barlow-Austin laying on a mat in her cell in distress, struggling to crawl, blindly feeling around her cell for food and water and knocking on the glass window in attempt to summon help. According to the lawsuit, Barlow-Austin had lost her vision by the time she was placed in observation; multiple video clips show her unable to locate boxes of food or cups of water placed in her cell.
“Holly is unrecognizable. It’s haunting,” her husband, Michael Glenn Austin, said through Heipt. “Losing her has left me heartbroken.”
Photos of Barlow-Austin shared with The Post from before her detention show her smiling and posing for the camera, while images of her after she’s been moved to the hospital show her intubated and looking wan.
Mary Margaret Mathis, Barlow-Austin’s mother, still cannot bring herself to watch the videos. She says reading about her suffering had been difficult enough.
“I can’t stop thinking about how badly she was treated,” Mathis said through Heipt. She described her daughter as a generous spirit, willing to share whatever she had with those who needed help.
“She made the world a better place. And she loved her family. She treated her nieces and nephews like they were her own babies,” Mathis said.
Heipt said he was troubled not only by the jail’s treatment of Barlow-Austin, but how it handled her case once she was taken to the hospital: Her family only discovered she had been hospitalized after going to the jail to visit and being told she was no longer in custody. Heipt said her husband was able to track down the sheriff to personally ask for her whereabouts.
“One of the biggest problems in this case is that there has not been an investigation,” Heipt said, noting that it’s typical for an outside agency to investigate any death that results from being in custody of law enforcement.” The fact that they got around the in-custody death reporting requirements by simply releasing her from custody when her death is imminent and then not reporting it to the state is a problem.”
LaSalle Corrections and its specific facilities, including Bi-State Jail, have faced several previous lawsuits over alleged inadequate staff training and abusive or neglectful care, particularly related to health and medical issues.
The Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections runs the Irwin County Detention Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Georgia that Monday was the subject of a whistleblower complaint by a nurse at the facility who alleged immigrant detainees have been denied basic medical care and possibly subjected to hysterectomies without their informed consent.
Since 2015, at least four detainees at Bi-State have died in custody, including some whose cases bear similarities to Barlow-Austin’s. In 2016, Morgan Angerbauer died after staff failed to follow health protocols and check on the 20-year-old diabetic. A nurse at the jail later pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. The year prior, 35-year-old Michael Sabbie told jail guards he could not breathe after he was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed. He was left in his cell unmonitored and found dead the next day.
Barlow-Austin’s suit alleges LaSalle has a history of hiring detention staffers with “little or no corrections experience, and it was foreseeable that the lack of such training would cause harm to inmates and detainees.”
Heipt, who also represented Michael Sabbie’s estate in a suit against LaSalle that was later settled, said the problems at LaSalle’s facilities could have been avoided.
“I think it’s a company that sees inmates as dollar signs and puts profits over people’s lives. They could easily fix the problems in their jails, but it would cost money to do so,” he said. “Unless they’re held accountable in some fashion, there’s going to be another Michael Sabbie, another Holly, another Morgan.”