Medical examiner: Prison inmate from Ogden died from seizure

Oct 27 2012 - 6:41am

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Priscilla Chavez
Priscilla Chavez

OGDEN -- The family of Priscilla Chavez says the State Medical Examiner has determined the Utah State Prison inmate died from a grand mal seizure.

Chavez, 29, was found dead Sept. 21 in her cell in the prison's mental health unit.

The death is under investigation by Salt Lake County's Unified Police Department. The Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is now monitoring the case, as well as possibly other agencies.

The unified department's public information officer, Lt. Justin Hoyal, said the department hadn't received its copy of the medical examiner's autopsy results.

A major seizure, he said, could allow a preliminary investigative finding of death by natural causes. Investigators would need some time to go over the report when it is received next week, he said.

But Chavez's family has been receiving letters from inmates who said a seizure Chavez suffered the night before she died sent her to the prison infirmary.

She was then returned to her cell on apparent suicide watch.

"They brought her back to her cell to let her die," said Chavez's 65-year-old mother, Irene, who cannot talk about her daughter's death without crying hysterically.

She said the medical examiner's news came Thursday, from the autopsy conducted by Dr. Ed Leis, a deputy medical examiner she talked with on the phone.

"I don't understand," she said. "He said she had two seizure medications inside her ... and had internal bleeding. They had to have seen it (the fatal seizure) going on ­-- the guards, the control room -- and they did nothing to help her.

"I don't want money. I don't care about money. All I want is justice for her and for the mentally ill."

Priscilla Chavez had been in and out of the state prison and the state mental hospital since she was 16, according to court and prison records.

Family members say she had mental problems since being sexually abused as a child.

The 5-foot-4 Chavez had a problem with authority, her long prison record showing no drug or alcohol charges, thefts or other offenses, but almost entirely a litany of charges involving fights with police officers.

In 2001, she was raped by a prison guard, who was fired and sent to prison himself for the offense in 2003.

In 2010, Chavez was awarded $1.4 million in damages by a federal court judge against the guard, Louis Poleate, for the rape.

The federal court victory came just days after Chavez was returned to prison by the Ogden courts on another string of charges involving assaults against police officers, as well as one case of assault of a mental health worker.

The state prison settled its part of the federal lawsuit out of court for $25,000.

The particular cells where Chavez died are equipped with cameras that Unified police have said showed nothing unusual in the hours leading up to her death.

Suicide watch generally means an inmate is checked every 15 minutes.

"The fact she died on suicide watch is troubling to us and raises red flags," said Leah Farrell, staff attorney for the Utah ACLU chapter.

She said the ACLU has talked with Randy Phillips, the Ogden lawyer who filed the successful 2010 federal lawsuit and has filed notice with the state of his intent to sue over Chavez's death.

Phillips did not immediately return calls.

Farrell said her office is not formally assisting Phillips, "but we're very interested in getting more information and having the results of the police investigation come out. We want to have the prison be accountable and transparent about what happened."

"There are larger policy concerns about what the prison does when someone is on suicide watch and how they handle mental health concerns within the prison population."

The Disability Law Center has recently begun an initiative to monitor the prison's handling of mentally ill inmates.

Rob Denton, managing attorney at the center, said it has been in contact with the Chavez family.

However, the staffer directly involved was out of the office Friday.

The Chavez family has been contacted by or been in contact with at least two other law firms considering the case.

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