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State sues Armor health services over inmate deaths; 3 died on its watch in Niagara County

Niagara County, where three jail inmates died while Armor Correctional Health Services was providing medical services in the jail, isn’t the only community whose association with Armor led to litigation.

The state Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Armor over 12 inmate deaths in the Nassau County Correctional Center since 2011. In five of the cases, state investigators found the inmates received inadequate medical care.

In Niagara County, Armor paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit over an inmate death in 2012. Two other wrongful death lawsuits are pending.

The state’s lawsuit mentions two Niagara County deaths in passing, but makes all its damage claims in regard to Nassau County. The suit seeks to bar Armor, which is based in Miami, from ever bidding for jail medical services in New York State again.

Armor spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez said, “Any allegation that Armor has failed to provide quality correctional medical care at the facility is simply false.”

She added that the company has supplied the state with data “that simply is contradictory to any claim of deficient patient care. Armor is proud of its work caring for the inmates at the Nassau County facility, and will continue to do so as long as Nassau County wants it to do so.”

Niagara County hired Armor in 2012, planning to save $800,000 a year by privatizing jail medical care. County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said, “We never heard anything bad about Armor before we hired them. We only heard good things.”

Within two weeks of Armor taking over in December 2012, two men died in their solitary confinement cells. The state Commission of Correction, investigating the cases, blamed Daniel Pantera’s Christmas morning death on “grossly inadequate medical and mental health care.”

Pantera, 46, had a history of mental illness, which was known to the officer who arrested him 15 days before his death for not paying for a cup of coffee at a store in North Tonawanda.

On Dec. 22, 2012, a corrections officer saw Pantera knock himself cold by running at full speed into the wall of his cell. On Christmas Eve, Pantera took off his clothes and was seen under his bed, talking to the wall. He died overnight; the state report placed some of the blame on hypertension and some on hypothermia, saying the cell was too cold.

On Dec. 29, 2012, Tommie Lee Jones Jr., 51, a parole violator from Niagara Falls, died of what the state report called “acute untreated pulmonary edema, secondary to congestive heart failure.” He told officers when he was admitted to the jail that he had heart disease, emphysema and gout.

The Commission of Correction accused Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, Armor’s local medical director, of “grossly incompetent and inadequate care,” saying Jones was the victim of “patient abandonment” and an erroneous prescription by Gasiewicz.

Suarez said, “We stand behind the many caregivers who work relentlessly every day on behalf of Armor to fulfill our mission of providing quality care to our patients. Unfortunately, health care providers in the corrections setting are subject to frequent and unfounded allegations and legal actions.”

In July 2015, Armor paid a $100,000 settlement to Jones’ daughter, Maria Escalera. Niagara County paid nothing, and Armor covered the county’s $22,516 legal bill for the case.

On Oct. 8, 2014, a few days after the release of the state report on Jones and Pantera, inmate Lisa Ann Dietz, 41, of Hartland, hanged herself in her cell. Dietz, charged with a series of burglaries, died four days later in a hospital.

In December 2015, Dietz’ husband, John J. Dietz, sued Armor and the county, alleging inadequate supervision of the cell and a lack of proper care for his wife, who had a history of drug abuse. She had attempted suicide in August 2014 by overdosing on painkillers and slashing her wrists. The Dietz and Pantera cases remain pending in State Supreme Court.

In October 2015, with Armor’s contract about to run out, Niagara County hired Correctional Medical Care of Blue Bell, Pa. The switch was attributed to cost. Correctional Medical is being paid $2.18 million a year, about $300,000 less than Armor sought.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com