An inmate with celiac disease died when prison officials failed to take her chronic condition seriously.
Within 24 hours of serving her four-year stay at a state-run prison in New Mexico, Jennifer Harris Hopkins told officials she suffered from celiac disease and required routine care and a specialized diet.
Prison officials documented her medical condition during the intake process, and the lawsuit alleges that Harris Hopkins’ condition was “well-known” to correctional medical staff.
The wrongful death lawsuit documents Harris Hopkins’ struggle to be taken seriously, her precipitous decline, and her eventual death during her prison stay.
The lawsuit alleges that within the first week of Harris Hopkins’ sentence, she was transported to a nearby hospital for emergency medical treatment. She was discharged shortly after that.
A week later, she requested medication to treat nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. She also reported anal bleeding, double vision, and intense pain in her stomach.
She was taken to the hospital again, and the physician concluded that it was “possible” she had celiac disease.
Meanwhile, Harris Hopkins lost 34 pounds, and her health continued to decline, all of which her family alleges would have been prevented had the staff provided her with gluten-free food and medical care.
When prison officials continued to fail to provide reasonable medical and dietary accommodations, Harris Hopkins filed a grievance stating, “I am malnutritioned [sic] and vitamin deficient” and, “The items above can kill me. HELP ME!”
Still, no one helped her.
Harris Hopkins died several months after filing the initial grievance. The Office of the Medical Investigator found she suffered from “profound malnutrition” from untreated celiac disease.
In April 2023, nearly seven years after Harris Hopkins’ death, the state paid her estate a $200,000 settlement.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine, which is responsible for absorbing nutrients from food and distributing those nutrients to every cell and organ in the body.
People with undiagnosed and unmanaged celiac disease are often deficient in one or more nutrients. They suffer from a variety of painful symptoms, including bloating and diarrhea, as well as serious conditions such as itchy blisters on the skin and even cancer or death.
The only treatment option for celiac disease is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet. There are no medications, vaccines, or surgical procedures to cure celiac disease.
The ADA Fails Inmates with Celiac Disease and Food Allergies
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes disabilities that affect major life activities, such as eating and digestion. Therefore, the ADA is designed to protect people with celiac disease. (Read: Is Celiac Disease a Disability?)
The ADA’s protection extends to inmates with celiac disease and other medically-diagnosed gluten disorders or food allergies. Such protection requires prison officials to provide food-challenged prisoners with reasonable meal accommodations.
While the failure of prison officials to meet Harris Hopkins’ special dietary requests led to her untimely death, other inmates in other prisons also share how their pleas to be taken seriously fell on deaf ears.
In a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by prisoner Gaven Picciano, who has celiac disease, Picciano says that prison officials denied his “repeated requests” for gluten-free meals, forcing the inmate to go days and weeks without access to proper food.
The lawsuit alleges that after nine days with little food, Picciano reportedly became unresponsive. The guards tried to revive him with naloxone thinking he had overdosed. Picciano had not taken drugs or overdosed; instead, he collapsed from having no food.
After being treated for low blood pressure, dehydration, an electrolyte imbalance, and an irregular heartbeat, Picciano was released from the hospital and ordered to eat a gluten-free diet. He claimed that during his 13-month prison stay, he says he lost 35 pounds.
Another prisoner, Michael Saffioti, died in prison after being fed oatmeal that contained dairy despite notifying officials of his life-threatening dairy allergy. The prison paid his family $620,000 in a wrongful death claim.
Christopher Quaglin, a prisoner charged in connection with the January 6th Capitol riots, has celiac disease and is “starving to death,” according to his lawyer. His lawyer says Quaglin is being denied a special diet and adequate medical care for his celiac disease.
The jail’s superintendent denies Qaglin’s lawyer’s mistreatment accusations, retorting, “Quaglin is and has been receiving the appropriate dietitian-designed diet consistent with his specific dietary requirements and the appropriate level of medical services consistent with his diagnosis.”
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