Four Guards Charged in Beating Death of Nassau County Inmate 5/28/99

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Thomas Prizzuto, a methadone patient, was serving the second day of a 90-day sentence when he was allegedly beaten to death by guards at the Nassau County (NY) jail after asking repeatedly for methadone. Four corrections officers have been charged in the attack. All have pleaded not guilty.

Methadone patients who are abruptly cut off from the medication suffer serious withdrawal symptoms, including vomiting, cramps, sweating and diarrhea. Prizzuto apparently refused to stop calling out to guards for methadone, which led to his beating. Left in his cell over the weekend, Prizzuto suffered a seizure and died of a ruptured spleen.

Guards Ivano Bavaro, Edward Velazquez and Patrick Regnier were charged with the beating, while a fourth guard, Joseph Bergen, was charged as an accessory after the fact for allegedly falsifying a prison record to indicate that Prizzuto's injuries were sustained in a fall in the shower room. Another prisoner, however, who was in the cell next to Prizzuto's, will testify that he heard him being beaten on the date in question.

Ernest Peace, attorney for Regnier, told The Week Online that there is little evidence that the guards beat Mr. Prizzuto.

"The guy was taken to two different doctors between January 8th and January 11th when he died. Neither doctor found anything wrong, and he was sent back to his cell. Prizzuto himself claimed he fell. Maybe he was beaten up by another inmate. My client spent four years in the Navy, he's been a guard for six, and he's never had a complaint against him."

But Peter Neufeld, who, along with Barry Scheck and Johnny Cochran is representing the Prizzuto family in their civil suit, disputes Mr. Peace's assertions.

"This investigation has lasted four months, and involved forty federal agents. You don't just get an indictment of prison guards without evidence. It is our understanding that two other guards have come forward and are cooperating. As to what doctors saw Mr. Prizzuto, our information is that the only time he was taken to a hospital was after he went into seizures. He died in the hospital two days later (January 13th).

"We are hoping to force the Justice Department to undertake an investigation into the long history of abuse of inmates and the practice of refusing to provide adequate medical care at the Nassau County Jail."

Joycelyn Woods, director of the National Alliance of Methadone Advocates, told The Week Online that while there are still very few methadone maintenance programs currently operating in a US jail (there is one at Rikers Island in New York and one at the Suffolk County Jail), many correctional systems will at least detoxify inmates (give them diminishing doses of the drug for a short period of time), rather than force them into severe withdrawal.

"It's inhumane, to say the least. People who are using methadone are, by definition, in recovery. They get their methadone from licensed programs, there's nothing illicit about it. But it happens all the time (denying methadone to people at the Nassau County Jail), and the only reason that this case has gotten attention is that they beat him to death and because his wife, who's a methadone patient herself, was brave enough to seek justice."

"Many of the people who are in jails in this country are simply awaiting trial, and haven't been accused of anything. Is it moral to deny these people a medication that they're taking under a doctor's supervision, leaving them in pain?"

Donna Schoen, patient advocate for the Long Island Jewish Medical Center's methadone program, who wrote an article in 1995 detailing problems at the Nassau County Jail, told The Week Online that the problems are endemic.

"In 1995 I heard about a methadone patient, who also had AIDS, who was left suffering for over a week, twisting on the floor, having seizures, vomiting. It wasn't until pressure was brought by a state agency that he was medicated. Once I started asking around, people came out of the woodwork telling their stories. In June of 1998, I sent a letter to Thomas Gulotta (Nassau County Commissioner), including the article and a list of other people I had heard from. I told Mr. Gulotta that until there was a methadone program in place in the county jail, these problems were not going to go away. He wrote me back and told me that he had sent my letter on to Joseph Jablonsky (Nassau County Sheriff), and that I would be hearing from him. Well, it took him nine months, and the death of this poor kid, before I heard back."

Schoen said that she is hoping that Prizzuto's death will not have been in vain.

"People go in to the county jail and get sick. They're chained to beds for days on end, or beaten, or left to suffer. What's needed is a program to provide methadone and a doctor there that understands the medical problems of the people who are there. Until that happens, more people will suffer and die there."

(The National Alliance of Methadone Advocates is online at http://www.methadone.org.)

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Issue #92, 5/28/99 Thanks, and Another Special Offer Through June 30 | Medical Marijuana Activist Convicted in Federal Court: Jury Not Allowed to Hear Evidence of Medicinal Use | Four Guards Charged in Beating Death of Nassau County Inmate | Senate Juvenile Justice Bill Passes in Wake of Colorado School Shooting, Would Dramatically Increase Surveillance and Drug Testing | New York Assembly Speaker Says No to Rockefeller Drug Law Reform...Or Does He? | Policy Change May Allow for Non-Government Funded Medical Marijuana Research | Conviction of Juror in Nullification Case Overturned | New York: No Rockefeller Reform This Year, Presentations in Westchester Area by Reconsider | Editorial: Growing Pains
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