Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Grand jury rips jailers for ignoring teen as he died

A West Palm Beach grand jury declared "fundamentally and woefully inadequate" the medical care given to an 18-year-old who died after two head injuries he received at the county juvenile lockup were ignored for hours by guards, supervisors and the facility's superintendent.

Eric Perez, who was detained after being arrested with a small amount of marijuana, died in the early hours of July 9 after spending most of the prior night hallucinating, vomiting, soiling himself and seeking help from guards who ignored him. The grand jury's presentment said Eric had been dead for an hour before lockup corrections officers noticed he had passed away. An officer stationed outside his cell checked on him every 10 minutes without noticing his death.

"The only attempt to seek an outside medical opinion during the entire episode was two phone calls to the head nurse that went unanswered during the night," the presentment said. "The officers' response to Mr. Perez's hallucinations, instability and cries of pain were to simply observe him as he lay on the floor vomiting and defecating in his underwear. More effort was spent cleaning the floor around the youth than attending to his welfare."

Department of Juvenile Justice administrators said Friday they had received a copy of the report and "will carefully review its findings to determine if additional action is needed to ensure the safety of youth in our care."

"Since Eric Perez's death in July 2011, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has taken decisive steps to ensure such a tragedy from occurring again," DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters said in a written statement.

"Eric's death has motivated us at DJJ to ensure we have proper policies and procedures and that our employees are effectively trained to follow them," Walters said. "As DJJ's leader, I pledge my utmost efforts to continue reforming this agency until it becomes the nation's role model for juvenile justice administration."

She added: "Let me again express my profound sorrow and condolences to Eric's family for the pain and anguish caused by his loss."

Perez was being housed in module B-2 of the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center on July 9 at about 7:40 p.m. when he and other detainees were taken to a cafeteria for snacks. When the youths were finished eating, an ordinary search of the boys for contraband food turned into an episode of "horseplay," as officers laughed and joked with the youths they were searching, the report said.

Eric was "roughly tossed in the air, striking the wall and/or floor with his head and shoulder as he came down," the report said. Security video from that day showed Eric wobbly on his feet after he fell.

At about 1:30 a.m. that night, Eric began to hallucinate: His cellmate called guards after he heard Eric scream "It's going in my eye" and "Get it off me."

The guard called his supervisor for help, and both officers saw Eric staggering around his cell. The youth was so disoriented he had to "crawl" out of his cell. "It hurts," he screamed, referring to his head.

"Mr. Perez then rose to his feet, using the wall for balance, before he stumbled forward, fell and appeared to strike his head on the corner of a table," the report said. It was the second time Eric had struck his head that night.

At 2:22 that morning, Eric rolled off a mattress they had placed him on and vomited. He then defecated on himself, officers said. Despite the fact that Eric could not stand, "no attempt was made to call 911 or otherwise seek medical assistance," the report said.

Guards did make two calls to a lockup nurse, but the woman was not on call and did not return the messages, the report said.

One officer on duty that night told grand jurors that she overheard a supervisor say Eric "was faking, and he did not want to fill out extra paperwork."

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