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Mother with mental health symptoms died in jail from 'torturous' neglect, lawsuit claims

"The police arrived before an ambulance," the suit says. "This fact set in motion a tragic series of events that led Damaris ... to her eventual death."

The family of a Washington state mother of five with bipolar disorder and psychosis says abuse and negligence led to her death at a jail she did not deserve to be in.

Damaris Rodriguez's "death followed four days of inexcusable neglect and appalling conditions at the South Correctional Entity Jail ('SCORE') that can only be described as torturous," says a lawsuit her family filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle in December, nearly two years after she was found dead in a jail cell.

Rodriguez's husband, Reynaldo Gil, called 911 on Dec. 30, 2017, from their home in SeaTac to report that she was suffering a mental health episode and needed medical assistance, according to the lawsuit. While Gil was not fluent in English, he was able to communicate to the dispatcher through an interpreter that he was not calling to report a crime. Rather, his wife was having a health crisis and needed a doctor.

Nonetheless, "the police arrived before an ambulance," the lawsuit says. "This fact set in motion a tragic series of events that led Damaris to SCORE and to her eventual death."

Gil told deputies that his wife was "responding to voices in her head, becoming abnormally agitated, experiencing extreme anxiety and paranoia" and needed "to be seen by a mental health facility," but the deputies assumed they were responding to a domestic violence incident, and, instead of securing medical treatment, they arrested her and took her to SCORE.

"Taking an arrestee to a jail is much faster, easier, and requires less paperwork than taking an arrestee to a hospital," the lawsuit says.

Rodriguez was housed in a variety of cells at SCORE, which is in Des Moines, in King County south of Seattle. Once, SCORE staff dragged her between cells, "twisting her shoulders into a painful position," Rodriguez's family alleges.

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SCORE personnel repeatedly observed and noted that she had mental health and physical problems but did nothing in four days to treat her, the suit says. Rodriguez was observed vomiting, stumbling in circles, grabbing her genitalia, spinning in circles, lying on her face, throwing food and displaying other erratic behavior, but she was never attended to, it says.

At one point, SCORE staff consulted with NaphCare Inc. of Birmingham, Alabama, , the service the jail contracts with for medical services, about her need for treatment, the lawsuit says. But she was never taken to a hospital or seen by a doctor or a nurse practitioner, even after she was transferred to a "medical cell," it says.

Instead, some jail staff assumed that Rodriguez was under the influence and, on Jan. 2, tested her for drugs, the suit says.

"There are no commonly used drugs that could have conceivably caused Damaris to be under the influence for the nearly three days she had spent in custody" at that point, the lawsuit says.

The test showed no drugs in Rodriguez's system, it says.

Rodriguez had thrown most of the food provided to her in the toilet because of her mental state, and jail authorities knew she wasn't eating, the suit alleges.

In a 24-hour period on Jan. 2 and 3, guards simply didn't leave Rodriguez with meals because she wasn't responding from inside her cell, the suit says. She wasn't responding because her "demeanor started to become lethargic, evidencing the fact that her body was beginning to shut down," it says.

According to the complaint, the lasting starvation led to "an easily diagnosable and treatable metabolic condition called ketoacidosis," which leads to excessive water intake and fatally low sodium levels. A routine test of her urine, which had already been collected, would have shown "dangerously high levels of ketones and salt," it says.

"Corrections officers and medical staff were aware of the dangers of water intoxication. In fact, they even discussed and made notes about their concern that Damaris would experience water intoxication. However, they did not help her," the lawsuit says, alleging that they never screened her or evaluated whether she needed any medications.

Instead, in response to Rodriguez's insatiable thirst, jail staff moved her to a cell with no sink, the suit says. They covered the window so they wouldn't have to look at her, and they put towels in front of her door so that her vomit wouldn't leak into the hallway, the suit alleges.

It was in that cell that Rodriguez's body was found. She was pronounced dead Jan. 4.

"For Damaris, these four days were painful, confusing, and terrifying. What happened in these four days was also easily preventable," her family says. "Although ketoacidosis and water intoxication were the physiological mechanisms that shut her body down, the root cause of Damaris's death was a system that did not care about her."

South Correctional Entity jail
South Correctional Entity jail in Des Moines, Washington.Google Earth

She was also never scheduled to go before a judge during her time in jail, according to the suit. Had she been, she likely would have been released on a "modest amount of bail."

And even though Rodriguez's husband tried desperately to contact SCORE and NaphCare, they made no effort to speak with him, the family says. When she died, the deputy who originally arrested Rodriguez called Gil and "cryptically" told him to "call the medical examiner" about his wife, the lawsuit says.

The suit, which lists SCORE and NaphCare as defendants, blames improper training of staff and "a perverse financial incentive where cost-savings are prioritized over human life" for Rodriguez's death.

The suit accuses SCORE and NaphCare of being "in the business of cut-rate incarceration."

The family's attorneys also allege that her death was one of "numerous recent in-custody deaths connected to SCORE and NaphCare" and that five of the seven people who died in custody most recently were people of color.

SCORE disclosed two inmate deaths in 2019, in April and September.

SCORE did not respond to NBC News' request for comment. But in a 2018 statement about Rodriguez's death, SCORE said that "corrections and medical staff immediately began resuscitation efforts" when she was found unresponsive but that "the inmate was unable to be revived and pronounced dead."

NaphCare said in a statement that it was "deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life."

"While NaphCare does not comment on the details of pending litigation, we are confident in the quality of care provided to our patients," the statement said. "Unfortunately, the jail population, particularly those with serious mental illness, are highly prone to sudden, unpreventable cardiac events. The King County Medical Examiner determined the cause of death in this instance to be sudden and natural."

Rodriguez's family accuses SCORE or NaphCare of negligence, cruel and unusual punishment, withholding of medical care, abuse, excessive use of force, assault and battery, failure to provide reasonable accommodations, false imprisonment and denial of right to a speedy trial.

They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

They also allege that the jail acted in violation of Washington's Public Records Act. The family obtained much of the evidence in the suit by filing a public records request and obtaining surveillance video from the jail. However, many parts of video were missing, including from the time when Rodriguez stopped breathing and during periods when staffers logged or claimed that they had checked on her in her cell.