The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that a young prisoner who apparently suffered from serious mental illness died of starvation and dehydration after spending four months in the Salt Lake County Jail, much of them in solitary confinement. Carlos Umana, 20, weighed at 180 pounds when he entered the jail in October 2010; when he died on February 27, he weighed just 77 pounds. Tests showed that none of his prescribed psychiatric drugs were in his system at the time of his death.
As a teenager, Umana was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. According to the Tribune, his mother, Tammy Martinez, said that Umana had ”stopped taking his medication in the fall. ’Then he started hearing voices and thinking people was poisoning him,’ Martinez said. Umana was so concerned about people poisoning him, she said, that he started preparing all his own food.”
On October 26, Umana stabbed his mother’s boyfriend, who was preparing a meal in her kitchen; he later told the police that he believed the man was going to kill him. He was charged him with first-degree felony attempted murder and held in the county jail. The Tribune describes what happened next:
Martinez said within a few days of Umana’s arrest, she took the jail his medications. Jail staff wouldn’t take the pills, but did write down the prescriptions, she said.
It’s not clear when Umana stopped consuming food and water. [Lt. Mike] DeNiro said Umana had been in the jail’s health unit but was removed for bad behavior. DeNiro declined to elaborate.
Jail staff moved Umana to the administrative segregation unit. The unit has a higher level of security and each inmate there has a cell to himself. Each cell has a drinking fountain and meals are provided to the inmates.
Martinez said she saw her son a few days after Christmas. Then Umana lost his visiting privileges due to misbehavior. Martinez said she has never been told what her son did wrong.
On Jan. 20, staff decided to return Umana to the health unit. DeNiro said Umana’s refusal to consume food or water was just one reason for the move. DeNiro again declined to elaborate, but he did say that prior to 2008, a patient with Umana’s problems would have been moved to a hospital. In 2008, the jail opened an acute care unit in its own health ward…
On Feb. 8, Martinez said, a female jail employee called her to say Umana was refusing to eat and had taken only two showers since his arrival at the jail. According to Martinez, the woman said jail staff were having a meeting that day to decide what to do.
Martinez was allowed to see her son three days later. From the other side of the protective glass, Martinez said she could tell Umana was in trouble. He was thin, his eyes were sunken and he had trouble holding up his head. He said something about the water in the jail being too hot.
“He says, ‘Mom, I need to get out of here. I won’t make it in here,’ ” Martinez recalled.
The woman jail employee called Martinez the next day to ask how the visit went. Martinez told her Umana was not well. Martinez said she assumed the jail would take care of the problem. Meanwhile, Umana’s court case was delayed while the judge and the attorneys waited for results from a mental health professional about whether Umana was competent to stand trial. The results of that review have not been made public.
The last time Carlos Umana was seen with food was five days before his death, and even then he was only “picking” at his meal, according to a medical examiner’s report Martinez’s family shared with The Tribune . About 6 a.m. on Feb. 27, a guard performing a regular check found Umana kneeling over the toilet in his cell.
Umana did not respond to the guard’s calls. When staff entered the cell, Umana was unconscious. An IV was started, he was placed on a stretcher and staff began performing CPR.
At 6:42 a.m., as staff were preparing to wheel him to an ambulance, Umana was pronounced dead.
Martinez received a telephone message from someone on the jail staff telling her to call back right away to discuss her son. Martinez believed the message would be news that Umana had made a turn for the better. When Martinez called, she couldn’t believe what she was hearing when a jail employee said Umana was dead.
Postmortem tests did not find the presence of any drugs — an indication Umana was not taking medications for his mental illness. In his report, the medical examiner ruled the manner of death was natural causes due to starvation and dehydration, but the medical examiner listed Umana’s mental illness as a likely contributing factor.
A few days after the story broke in the Tribune, the Salt Lake County Sheriff told the paper that the jail would be revising its policies on when to commence forcefully feeding or medicating inmates. No legal action had been taken.