Nurse sounded alarm over inmate’s death and sexual harassment at Orleans jail — then was fired: lawsuit

When Dennis Edwards was taken to the Orleans Parish jail’s medical clinic early on Dec. 15, nurse Natalie Henderson first noticed the jerky movements in his arms. His upper body moved so widely that someone had handcuffed his wrist to the stretcher, she said. Edwards was coming down from some kind of drugs, she thought, and was clearly “in distress.” He kept flailing around. He was “not coherent,” she said.

Edwards’ heart rate was “knocking on 200,” twice the normal threshold, Henderson said, recalling his vitals from memory at a recent interview. His oxygen saturation was below normal, and his blood pressure “at stroke levels,” she said. She recognized a smell coming from his body – a foul mix of blood and feces – indicating he could have gastrointestinal bleeding, she said.

“I said, ‘He needs to go to the hospital. He is going to die,'” Henderson recalled telling a supervisor at Correct Care Solutions, the company that provides inmate medical care for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Edwards, 41, was not taken to a hospital. Instead, sheriff’s office officials said, he died on the floor of the Orleans Justice Center jail’s medical clinic after EMS personnel were unable to revive him. It was only his second night at the jail, records show.

Four months later, Henderson was fired April 25 by Correct Care Solutions, according to a lawsuit she filed May 1 against Sheriff Marlin Gusman and her former employer, claiming her firing was retaliatory and violated Louisiana’s whistleblower protection law. Her lawsuit claims she complained to jail staff about alleged “improper care” of Edwards and other inmates, “but her complaints were not answered.” The suit also claims Henderson “and other nurses were being physically and psychologically sexually assaulted on numerous occasions by inmates,” and that CCS supervisors and jail staff in some instances “ignored” the “assaults.”

Hannah Bernard, Correct Care Solution’s counsel for regulatory affairs and operations support, declined to comment on Henderson’s claims or to answer questions about Edwards’ death or Henderson’s termination, saying the company does not comment on pending litigation. OPSO attorney Blake Arcuri declined to comment on Henderson’s claims, citing the same reason. He disputed, however, that she worked for OPSO, noting her status as a contract employee.

Henderson’s whistleblower lawsuit is raising new questions about the sheriff’s office’s actions in running a jail where a number of inmates have died in recent years. Edwards was one of six people who died while in OPSO custody in 2017 alone, according to the agency. A federal judge has cited the deaths and other poor conditions at the jail in imposing tighter monitoring over Gusman and the jail, which remains under a federal consent decree. 

Henderson said she raised numerous concerns to a supervisor at CCS before her termination, which she said she detailed in emails she shared with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. They included the decision not to order Edwards’ transport to a hospital before he died, and her allegations of being harassed at the jail.

“I was trying to help the inmates, and at the same time I’m being sexually harassed… And I’m the one who’s terminated,” Henderson said in an interview at her attorney Joseph Albe’s office in Slidell. She believes an opportunity was missed to get Edwards stabilized had he been taken to an emergency room.

“I feel like he could have been saved,” she said. 

‘I had seen it so much’ 

Henderson, 33, grew up in New Orleans East and earned her licensed practical nurse certification through Delgado Community College. The job suits her personality, she said. “I love to help people,” Henderson said.

She worked mostly at nursing homes before applying for a job at the jail with Correct Care Solutions in October. As a single mother raising a 10-year-old autistic son, she was attracted by the better pay and good benefits. Her lawsuit states she had an annual salary of $90,000.

Henderson said her duties included passing out medicine to inmates in their housing units. Most days, she said, one or more inmates would walk up to her as she stood at her medicine cart, exposing their penis or masturbating. “I had seen it so much,” she said. She learned to turn her head and continue to “keep passing medicine.” Deputies often tolerated the masturbation in the open housing units, she said. She recalled one deputy once putting a stop to the behavior, though, telling the men, “We’re not having that today.” 

What bothered Henderson more and prompted her to alert at least one CCS supervisor and OPSO jail staff, she said, was that some of the inmates would touch her inappropriately. They also began passing around printed copies of a photograph of herself she had posted on Facebook, she said, and used the picture to taunt her. She said she never learned how the men obtained the photo, despite her inquiries to jail staff.

At least five different incarcerated men touched Henderson’s buttocks while she was passing out medicine, she said. The first time, on Nov. 15, OPSO investigators launched a probe and eventually rebooked two people on sexual battery and other charges, court records show. A warrant for their arrests says video surveillance footage supported Henderson’s account. Louis Handy, 28, pleaded guilty Jan. 30 to misdemeanor sexual battery and was sentenced to six months at the jail. The other man charged, Evie Jackson, 54, was deemed mentally incompetent in January and his charges remain unresolved. 

Henderson alleged that when Handy learned she complained about the inappropriate touching, he called her a “rat,” and told her, “I’m going to see you out there in the world.” Henderson said she was pleased the sheriff’s office took action. But when Handy came back to the jail after pleading guilty, he was placed on the same unit where Henderson was scheduled to pass out medicine. An attorney who represented Handy in the sexual battery case, Autumn Harrell, declined to comment on the alleged threats Henderson claims Handy made to her. 

Henderson said at least three other incarcerated men touched her buttocks at the jail in other incidents. Johnny Byrd, another jailed man Henderson says touched her buttocks, was rebooked by OPSO in January on a misdemeanor sexual battery charge after she says OPSO investigated her claim, court records show. An OPSO report on the battery allegations corroborates Henderson’s account. Byrd, 21, was formally charged Feb. 8, records show, and the case remains open.

The day after a Dec. 5 incident when her buttocks was touched by another inmate, Henderson said she sent a supervisor an email, which Henderson provided, writing that a deputy who witnessed the inappropriate touching had notified an OPSO supervisor. But Henderson said she is not aware anything was done in response to that, or another incident she alleged.

Less than two weeks later in December, she said, she emailed a supervisor, this time raising concerns about Edwards’ death. 

‘He’s gone’ 

The first two phone calls Patricia Brown got Dec. 15 saying her brother, Dennis Edwards, had died in jail, she hung up. She was sick in bed with pneumonia, she said, and not in the mood for a prank.

The third caller pleaded with Brown not to hang up. He was with the sheriff’s office, the caller explained, and the news about her brother was serious. Brown, 47, said she didn’t even know Edwards had been arrested less than two days earlier. Her aunt, daughter and niece accompanied her to the coroner’s office to identify him.

“He was my confidant. He was my help. He was my everything. And now he’s gone,” Brown said in a phone interview earlier this month.

The coroner’s office ruled Edwards died of natural causes from hypertensive cardiovascular disease, an autopsy report shows. At death he had several drugs in his body, including naloxone, which is given to people to reverse an opioid overdose, as well as morphine and the opioids hydromorphone and norfentanyl, the report said.

Brown said Edwards had been living at her Bridge City home with her until shortly before his death, and that she did not know him to have health problems. He had done drugs in the past, she said, but she was not aware of any medical scares related to drug use. She last saw him a week before he died.

“He didn’t look like he had a problem in the world,” Brown said. 

Court records indicate Edwards was booked Dec. 13 on misdemeanor charges of theft, simple criminal damage to property and criminal trespassing – none a felony. He was apparently unable to pay the $450 a bail bonds service would require to post the $4,500 bond assigned to him by a judge just under 17 hours before Edwards’ death. 

The autopsy report said Edwards died at 2:52 a.m. Dec. 15. An email Henderson said she sent to her CCS supervisor 16 minutes later, at 3:08 a.m., listed her concerns with the handling of Edwards’ medical care. 

He had been in the clinic for “about 1 hour” and appeared “very unstable,” Henderson wrote, according to a copy of that email she provided. An OPSO report on Edwards’ death corroborates Henderson’s account of the timing and who was present in the medical clinic when he died. After reading his vitals, she wrote, “I explain to the charge nurse that he need to send the patient out.” The nurse in charge, Henderson wrote, “ignored everything I was asking him to do.” Henderson also wrote in the email that when she saw Edwards “coding,” meaning he needed to be resuscitated, she alerted the same supervisor, who Henderson said responded, “He’s OK.”

“The man finally stopped breathing,” Henderson wrote in the email, later adding, “I stressed my (concern) to send the patient out to the hospital, I’m just emailing you what happened.” 

Henderson told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune the same supervisor early that morning dismissed all of her suggestions, essentially telling her to “mind her own business.” 

That immediate supervisor did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

Henderson said about two weeks passed without a response to her first email about Edwards’ death, so she sent another email, this time copying two other higher-ups at CCS, she said. Eventually Melinda Parker, CCS’s director of nursing for operations at the New Orleans jail, wrote back offering to set up an appointment to discuss Henderson’s concerns, according to a copy of that email Henderson provided. Parker’s email stated the company could not “discuss corrective counseling or conversation outcomes about another employee with you.”

Parker did not return a message seeking comment for this story. 

Other than the emails, Henderson said CCS did not ask her for a formal statement related to Edwards’ care. OPSO did not interview her about Edwards’ death, both Henderson and Arcuri said.

“If my family member died like that I would have been upset,” said Henderson, explaining why she wrote to her CCS supervisors.

Dennis Edwards, 41, was one of six inmates who died in 2017 while in custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office or after being taken to hospital from the jail. (Brett Duke, NOLA.com | Times-Picayune archive) 

‘I can only do so much’ 

Henderson pressed forward at work. But the hostility she said she was shown by men housed at the jail came to a head in March.

She had passed out medicine on March 18 when a large group of jailed men – she estimated about 20 – crowded around her, at least one holding a copy of her Facebook picture and some of them calling her names like “b—-” and “hoe,” she said. Handy, the man convicted of sexual battery for touching her buttocks, was among the inmates crowded around her, she alleged. One or more people “started throwing cups,” she said, as the on-duty deputy remained seated.

“She wasn’t saying anything. … She just let it go on,” Henderson said of the deputy.

Someone threw “some type of black wet object” her way, which hit Henderson’s lip, she wrote in an email she said she sent to a supervisor the following day. To defend herself, she said she started “swinging” both arms while pushing past the men. Henderson said she feared for her safety. A ranking deputy then quickly responded to the unit, she said. Henderson said she did not know if she made contact with any men when she swung her arms toward them. Arcuri, the sheriff’s office attorney, confirmed OPSO’s internal unit that probes uses of force against inmates opened an investigation into Henderson regarding that incident. A document sent to the federal judge as part the consent decree mentions a preliminary finding of excessive force by a former contract employee. Arcuri said that was a reference to the Henderson probe. 

In her March 19 email, Henderson wrote that if deputies made the men line up for their medicine, one-by-one, “it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“I can only do so much as a female, I can’t be the deputy and the Nurse at the same time,” Henderson wrote, according to a copy of that email she provided.

Two days later, Henderson said, CCS suspended her without pay for two weeks, citing the March 18 incident. She said she did not receive any documentation related to her suspension. She was asked if she wanted to press charges against any of the men who threw things at her, but she said she told jail staff there were “so many at the cart I didn’t know who did what.”

When Henderson returned to work, she said, she was told she was not allowed on certain floors where she previously worked. A supervisor told her she was a “security threat” on those floors, she said. Henderson said it felt like CCS or the jail staff blamed her for being inappropriately touched.

About April 14, Henderson said, the same nursing supervisor who she says dismissed her suggestions in December to hospitalize Edwards yelled at her when Henderson balked at a data entry assignment for which she said she had not been trained. “You are going to work where I tell you to work,” Henderson said the supervisor yelled. So Henderson left the jail, she said, citing what she called a hostile environment and the lack of training. She said she told the same supervisor and another company higher-up that she was leaving before she went home. 

CCS suspended Henderson April 15 for leaving her post the previous day, she said. Again, she said she did not receive documentation. 

“If I complain I get harassed or reprimanded for speaking up,” she wrote in an email she said she sent to higher-ups in her company. “How do they expect me to function and work when they keep pulling me off of floors. Not explaining why I can’t go to a certain floor.” 

Henderson said on April 25, while home serving her second suspension, she received a call from a CCS representative notifying her she was being fired for leaving her post. 

“It’s just hurtful,” Henderson said in her interview. “I’m trying to do my job and it backfires in my face.”

6 in-custody deaths in 2017

Edwards ended up being one of six incarcerated people who died in custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2017, either inside a jail or after being transported to a hospital from an OPSO facility. No in-custody inmate deaths have been reported in 2018.

The 2017 deaths include five people who were brought to a hospital from the Orleans Justice Center jail or the Temporary Detention Center, another OPSO jail facility. One of them, Jermaine Johnson, 23, died last May, less than two weeks after authorities say he hanged himself in his cell in the Orleans Justice Center – a case that prompted additional criticism of the jail and the sheriff’s operation of it. 

The sheriff’s office also faces a wrongful death lawsuit related to the February 2017 death of Colby Crawford, who had a history of documented mental health problems and overdosed on cocaine he injected inside the jail — an incident recorded on OPSO’s surveillance cameras.

One other death last year was tied to the jail: Terry Smith, who died Aug. 5. Smith was so severely beaten at then-Orleans Parish Prison in 2012 that he spent five years confined to a bed in a nursing home, unable to speak, walk, or feed himself. He was 71 when he died. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk cited Smith’s beating in his 2013 decision to order sweeping reforms at the jail through the consent decree.  

Brown, Edwards’ sister, buried him Dec. 27 at Woodlawn Park Memorial Cemetery in Westwego. It would be months before she learned about Henderson, the nurse who said she raised concerns about her brother’s medical care before being fired.

“I would like to shake her hand, give her a hug and say thank you for trying to save a life when they didn’t,” Brown said of Henderson. Alluding to other jail deaths, Brown added, “Whoever is letting this go on and doing nothing about it, they really need to be investigated. …It ain’t just Dennis.”

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