An obscure Beat-era poet who died in custody in 2002 has become the subject of a lawsuit that could affect the way ailing Los Angeles County prisoners are treated.
John Thomas, 71 and obese, died less than three weeks into a term at the L.A. County Jail. He spent part of his last night gasping for air on the floor of his cell. Thomas had been sentenced after pleading no contest to a charge of oral copulation in an incident that occurred decades ago; the victim was his teenage daughter.
Philomene Long, Thomas' wife, sued the county alleging wrongful death and seeking unspecified damages for loss of companionship. She argued that her husband suffered cruel and unusual punishment while in custody.
"This case should send a signal to the county: If they don't invest in better medical care up front, they're going to be paying more later as a result of jury settlements," said ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, who blamed insufficient medical staff at the jail.
Thomas' treatment was not atypical, he said.
About 80% of inmate complaints the ACLU of Southern California handles deal with access to medical care and medication, said Jody Kent, coordinator of the ACLU's Jails Project.
The county maintained that Thomas received adequate care, including addressing specific needs such as a low-sodium diet, and said the government can't be held responsible for judgment calls made by doctors and nurses.
A federal district court judge granted the county's request to dismiss the lawsuit, saying there was not enough evidence to hold county policy responsible. Long appealed, and in late March the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with her, returning the case to District Court for trial. No date has been set.
In the appellate court decision, Justice Claudia Wilken said the court "consistently has found that a county's lack of affirmative policies or procedures to guide employees can amount to deliberate indifference," which violates the U.S. Constitution.
Long alleged that insufficient policies and a failure to train jail medical staff contributed to her husband's death. She also sued two jail doctors, alleging malpractice.
Long, whose lawyer advised her not to comment, did say she sued in hopes that others would not suffer.
Thomas' work, such as the L.A.-inspired prose poem "From Patagonia," earned him respect in West Coast literary circles. Poet Charles Bukowski called his friend "the best unread poet in America."
As part of the Beat generation, Thomas renounced traditional societal trappings and mores. He once told The Times: "I have Philomene, a pen, a pad, shirt and pants. If you start wanting more, it fills you up, leading to a poverty of the heart and mind."
In 1970, his teenage daughter Susan Idlet visited him in Echo Park -- a reunion after many years. Idlet said that soon after her arrival she and her father took psychedelic drugs and engaged in oral sex.
Almost 30 years later, she and her half-sister Gabrielle confronted their father about that summer. Gabrielle said, when he showed no remorse, they decided to take legal action.
Idlet, now 50, soon filed a police report. At his sentencing, she read a statement to the judge that said in part: "Sexual abuse is not an art form."
Thomas' lawyer, Jeffrey Douglas, said he appealed, arguing that the prosecution was unconstitutional -- coming during a brief time when the U.S. Supreme Court was debating the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases. Thomas died while the appeal was pending.
Before Thomas went to jail, Douglas submitted a letter outlining his client's medical needs. The poet suffered from congestive heart failure, depression and hypertension. He weighed more than 350 pounds.
On March 13, 2002, two days after reporting to jail, Thomas was admitted to the correctional treatment center at Twin Towers Jail, court records show.
While there, nurses documented swollen legs, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, an enlarged and hardened abdomen, brown urine and crackles in his lungs. But doctor visits were rare, according to court papers. When Thomas was offered and refused oxygen, a nurse gave him a liability waiver, which he signed.
On the night of March 28, staff found him on the floor. After three people unsuccessfully tried lifting him back into bed, a doctor, without seeing him, ordered that Thomas be moved onto a thin mattress pad -- farther than an arm's length from a call button. Shortly after midnight, he was transferred to a hospital, where he died that afternoon.