Prisoners to Texas mom: Guards ignored pleas for help in son's asthma death

Prisoners wrote Sandra Pinchback to tell her that the death of her son Curtis Garland could've been averted.

Story highlights

  • Mom: Son accepted consequences of his actions, was content to serve 12 years
  • Curtis Garland had asthma attack on a muggy day in 2014 in a prison without air conditioning
  • Mother says she thought asthma behind son's death until she got letters from prisoners

Mesquite, Texas (CNN)Anguish spiraled through Sandra Pinchback's body like a corkscrew upon hearing that her son had died in prison from an asthma attack.

Her grip on the phone loosened as she hung up with the prison chaplain, who had delivered the news about Curtis Garland's death at the George Beto Unit, located in a rural patch of East Texas about 12 miles west of Palestine.
    "Well, maybe the good Lord went on and took him because he had suffered for so long with asthma," Pinchback recalled thinking at the time, not realizing then that many of her son's fellow inmates felt his life could have been saved.
    The chaplain told her to call back if she wanted more details. She did. But the chaplain was short on them, she said. He couldn't even tell her where the 37-year-old's body was.
    "God put on my mind that something else happened," she said.
    Confirmation came three days later when the first of many letters from inmates arrived in her mailbox, she said.
    "They explain everything from that day and I'm like, 'Wow,' " she said.
    Dennis Clemons recalls trying to get prison guards to help his friend while he was having an asthma attack.
    Almost 50 letters, each echoing the previous, arrived from inmates who said they wanted to tell the grieving mother the real story of what happened to Garland.
    "We the offenders of M-Wing tryed to do everything in our power to get Curtis to the infirmmary and these people still diened him medical treatement," one letter began.
    "Both of these offenders told me that Curtis was telling the officer ... that he couldn't breathe, that he was going to die, please help me," reported another.
    A third recalled her son's last moments: "Inmate Garland looked at me and said help me 3X, then he said I'm dying 2X."
    These are just a sampling of their stories. In one envelope sent to Pinchback's home, she found a handwritten petition with the names of 45 prisoners, all of whom said they'd witnessed what happened to her son that day and would be willing to talk about it.
    Pinchback says the letters confirmed her suspicions about her son's death.
    For hours leading up to his death, the inmates pleaded with their jailers to get Garland help, yet he was repeatedly denied care until he died, they alleged.
    Garland died in the arms of Marchello Faulkner, who said he tried for hours to get guards at the maximum-security facility to help his friend. The former inmate's eyes well up as he tells his story, but no tears fall.
    Perhaps he's too self-conscious to let his emotions get the better of him at a Starbucks in Mesquite, just outside Dallas. Still, sitting in the coffee shop during a January interview, he appears haunted as he recites the refrain from his friend's last moments: "I'm fixing to die."
    In November, the Pinchback family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the warden, officers and the nurse at Beto Unit, alleging that Garland died a painful death.
    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the case due to the pending litigation.

    Fate accepted

    Garland was almost two years into his sentence, and his mother said he had accepted the consequences of his domestic violence conviction. He was content to serve his 12 years, she said.
    A severe asthmatic, Garland needed an albuterol inhaler multiple times a day, along with nebulizer breathing treatments.
    His mother worried about the level of care he'd receive in prison. Indeed, once incarcerated, Garland reported to his mother that he had problems getting access to his drugs, and the prison nurse who administered his meds refused to treat him at times, Pinchback said.
    Exacerbating his symptoms, she said, is that George Beto is nestled in one of the muggiest parts of Texas and has no air conditioning.
    Pinchback did what any mother would do: try to make sure her son was getting the proper care, but she faced difficulties. In 2014, she was told to have Garland fill out a formal request to give an inmate access to medicine, she said.
    Unsatisfied, she turned to prison rights advocate Cory Session with the Innocence Project of Texas. She knew Session because he had been key to getting her husband's rape conviction overturned based on DNA evidence.
    One inmate wrote that fellow prisoners tried to do everything in their power to help Garland.
    Sessions empathized with Pinchback's woes. His brother, Timothy Cole, was an asthmatic and died in a Texas jail in 1999.
    Determined to prevent a similar fate for Garland, Session called Bryan Collier, the deputy executive director at the state Department of Criminal Justice. Session explained the situation, and Collier contacted Beto warden Todd Harris, he said.
    Days after Session's conversation with Collier, Pinchback called and told him Garland had gotten access to his drugs and thanked him.
    "I thought everything was fine," Session said.
    That is, until the morning of June 24, 2014, when he got a tearful phone call from Pinchback about Garland's death.
    After getting nowhere with the chaplain, Pinchback tried to contact the warden for more details, to no avail, but Garland's fellow inmates would soon provide a window into her eldest son's final hours.

    'Something ain't right'

    Marchello Faulkner sought medical help that 90-degree June day while Garland struggled to catch his breath, he told CNN.
    Faulkner, serving time for marijuana possession, knew Garland for only a few months before he died. He met him when he was moved to George Beto's M-Wing, and they would soon be found playing chess or dominoes in the common area.
    Recently granted early release, Faulkner told CNN that he went to work in the kitchen the day before Garland's death to prepare food for the roughly 3,400 prisoners housed at Beto.
    Around 12:30 p.m., according to a timeline in the Pinchback family's lawsuit, a wheezing Garland began "complaining of shortness of breath" and went to see a nurse.
    When Faulkner got off work about 2:30 p.m., he said, he saw Garland in the common area. Garland told him he wasn't feeling well enough for a game of chess.
    "Our friend died in our arms," Earl Eugene Smith wrote to Garland's mother.
    By 4:30 p.m., Faulkner observed Garland "watching TV, then I noticed he asked that officer if he can go up there and get his inhaler. The officer told him he got to wait." Garland sat down behind Faulkner, and Faulkner would look back to check on his friend.
    "You know how you can look at someone and can tell there is something wrong with them? I was like, 'Man, something ain't right,' " Faulkner said.
    Hours passed, he said, and Garland repeatedly asked a guard for help, "and it seemed like he kept getting denied to get help."
    Faulkner decided to join him.
    Garland, 37, was serving a 12-year sentence for domestic violence.
    "It probably shouldn't have been my place to say something, but I was like, 'Man, this man need some help,' " he recalled.
    Faulkner estimates three hours passed after he witnessed Garland first ask for his inhaler, and the officer on duty said that roll was about to be called, after which he would be released to see the nurse.
    The officer called Garland's section last, which further delayed his access to treatment, Faulkner said.
    "They finally call Curtis' row. We try to go straight to the front gate," but prison staff stopped them mere yards away from the medical unit.
    A corrections officer told Faulkner and another inmate, both of whom were propping up a sweat-drenched Garland, to let him cool off in front of an industrial fan rather than carry him to the infirmary, Faulkner said.

    'You could see death on this man's face'

    At this point, Faulkner estimates, more than six hours had passed since Garland first sought medical help.
    By 10:30 p.m., Garland's lips had turned purple, he said.
    "He looked bad. You could see death on this man's face," Faulkner said, his voice quavering as he recounts the story and how Garland kept repeating, "I'm fixing to die."
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    "I am only an inmate. What can I do? The only thing I can do is ask the man. So after I ask them, I go back and say to Curtis, 'You're going to be all right, man. We're going to get you down to medical,' " Faulkner recalled.
    That's when Garland attempted to stand on his own to shuffle his way to the restroom. He instead urinated on himself.
    The atmosphere became tense as other inmates grew agitated while watching what was happening, Faulkner said.
    Faulkner dragged Garland's heaving body to the gate nearest the infirmary and demanded assistance, drawing the attention of another officer who recognized the severity of the prisoner's condition. That officer, according to Faulkner, was so disturbed by what he saw he began shaking as he attempted to open the gate.
    Joel Denzer, a San Antonio Spurs fan, recalls debating basketball with Garland.
    "He finally got the gate open, and we tried to get Curtis out the gate and get him down the hallway. They called on the walkie-talkie, 'We need assistance down to M-Wing,' " Faulkner said.
    The responding officer told Faulkner to put Garland down or he'd risk getting in trouble. Faulkner said he reluctantly complied, a move he now regrets.
    "I did a messed up move by laying him down because he kept saying, 'I'm fixing to die, I'm fixing to die,' " Faulkner said.
    "He started sweating even more. His body and face started turning purple and the man lost his bowels, then his eyes go in back of his head (and) he stopped breathing."
    Two officers responded and began performing CPR, pumping his chest, but it was too late, Faulkner said.
    "Curtis was dead," Faulkner said. "If that officer was doing his job like he (was) supposed to and would have helped that man seek medical attention, that could have been avoided."

    One of 620 reported deaths in state custody

    Pinchback said everyone makes mistakes, and her son had accepted his.
    "They are in there to do their time and get out," she said. "They are humans. You don't have to let them die in there. I want to get to the bottom of it. My son did not have to die like that."
    The family's lawsuit said Garland died while gasping for air during the asthma attack because prison officials ignored doctors as well as pleas from him and other inmates.
    The suit requests compensatory damages for Garland's pain and suffering.
    "They still have a lot of questions about what happened to Curtis," said attorney Emmanuel Obi, who is representing Garland's family.
    Denzer also described Garland's last moments. "He deserved better help," the letter said.
    The family wants "to make sure that other families don't have to go through the pain and grief that they have had to go through," he said.
    The Innocence Project's Session said he believes corrections officials need to be prosecuted. He called their actions in the case "official oppression."
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    Garland was one of 620 people to die while in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2014, according to a report from the state attorney general.
    Only the highest-profile cases -- such as that of Sandra Bland, whose hanging death in a Waller County jail cell last year sparked outcries and investigations -- make headlines, but Session alleges that deaths such as Garland's are common.
    The medical treatment afforded Texas prisoners is "like you are in a Third World country. ... If they would just give them medication and treat them and their illnesses, those people would survive," he said. "We treat animals better than we treat people in prison."
    Session said a pervasive "lackadaisical attitude" toward inmates' illnesses is tantamount to extrajudicial punishment.