The American Civil Liberties filed a federal court lawsuit Thursday accusing the governor, other state officials and the Department of Corrections of denying adequate medical care to inmates at Nevada's maximum-security Ely State Prison.
The class-action lawsuit, alleging "a pervasive pattern of grossly inadequate medical care," was filed in U.S. District Court in Reno.
Amy Fettig, staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, said the state had promised "far-reaching reforms" months ago, but "they've made only halfhearted gestures to fix their broken system."
The lawsuit claims that numerous inmates, including former Coasters manager Patrick Cavanaugh, suffered excruciating pain but were denied medications and needed surgeries by the prison's medical staff.
Cavanaugh, who died in 2006 at age 60, was an insulin-dependent diabetic who wasn't given medication, ended up with gangrene and died "a slow, painful death," according to Dr. William Noel, a doctor hired by the ACLU who studied the medical records of 35 Ely inmates.
The ACLU seeks a court-ordered monitor to oversee care at the prison on grounds that the Corrections Department has not provided the 1,000 inmates with adequate medical care.
"We do not seek any damages," said Fettig. "We want good medical care for our clients."
Corrections Director Howard Skolnik predicted the state will prevail in the litigation.
"At this point, we have a strong case," he said, adding, "Ely is a prison. It is not a hospital. The operations of an infirmary in a prison are different than working in a hospital."
Prison system spokesman Greg Smith said officials were "shocked" that the lawsuit was filed, adding that Skolnik had proposed to the ACLU on Wednesday that the Nevada State Medical Association be asked to name a panel of doctors to review prison medical operations.
"We have been making every effort to avoid a potentially lengthy litigation which will become a burden on the state of Nevada taxpayer," Smith stated.
In a Jan. 23 meeting, the state Board of Prison Commissioners rejected a consent decree sought by the ACLU that voluntarily would have let the federal court oversee prison medical care.
Gov. Jim Gibbons and other commissioners rejected the request after Skolnik and prison medical director Dr. Robert Bannister submitted a report that they said refuted Noel's findings.
Bannister said inmate care may not be perfect but it meets constitutionally mandated requirements.
Skolnik said a full-time doctor just had been hired by the prison and the facility now is staffed at all hours by nurses and has two doctors and a physician's assistant on staff.
Some of the ACLU's harshest criticism was directed toward the prison for its lack of care for Cavanaugh, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of Coasters group member Nathaniel "Buster" Wilson.
In his response to Noel's allegations, Bannister said that Cavanaugh refused medication and that repeated attempts were made to reason with him.
The lawsuit alleges that other inmates haven't been able to get treatment for debilitating chronic pain, a softball-sized hernia, eye problems that could lead to blindness, long-term open sores and other problems.