Idaho inmate says he had to swallow razor blade to get proper medical care in prison

Inmates walk to the dining hall from their cell block at the Idaho State Correctional Institution outside Boise in this 2010 photo.
Inmates walk to the dining hall from their cell block at the Idaho State Correctional Institution outside Boise in this 2010 photo. AP file

A man whose leg got so infected that it required amputation is suing Idaho’s prison health care contractor, Corizon Health, for alleged failure to provide medical care.

Gary L. Merchant, 65, says in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that it wasn’t until he swallowed a razor blade that the prison’s medical staff took him to the hospital, where he was treated for a flesh-eating infection in his leg.

“It is egregious,” said Merchant’s attorney, Jason Monteleone, of the Boise law firm Johnson & Monteleone.

The Statesman contacted Monteleone on Tuesday after obtaining a copy of the lawsuit via federal court. He said Merchant’s medical care was so extensive that his patient records fill up four boxes.

“The initial medical opinion that’s been obtained demonstrates not just reckless behavior but deliberate indifference,” Monteleone said. “I do a lot of correctional medical cases, and I’ve not seen one this bad.”

Spokespeople for Corizon and the Idaho Department of Correction — co-defendants in the case — declined to speak Tuesday about the lawsuit or about Merchant’s treatment in prison or the hospital, citing pending litigation and patient privacy.

Merchant was convicted in Canyon County of felony driving under the influence in 2009 and again in 2014. He’s incarcerated until at least 2021 at the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Kuna.

What happened to him

According to his lawsuit, Merchant had Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the digestive system that can cause serious complications without proper treatment. The lawsuit claims the prison’s staff was failing to give him proper care for Crohn’s. He also had a history of congestive heart failure and had suffered a heart attack.

He developed a severe infection in his left leg in January 2016. The medical provider at the prison misdiagnosed Merchant’s ailment and prescribed a diuretic, a blood thinner and pressure stockings to reduce the swelling in his leg.

He made “at least five written requests and, in total, over a dozen requests” to get medical attention for the worsening infection, his lawyer said.

The Corizon staff wouldn’t take him to a hospital, so he decided he had “no alternative but to swallow a small pencil-sharpener blade in order to force Corizon” to take him to St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center.

He was transported to St. Luke’s and admitted to the critical care unit on Feb. 7, 2016, according to the suit. The hospital’s staff diagnosed him with “severe sepsis and septic shock,” and he had severe abdominal pain and vomiting due to a Crohn’s flare-up.

He was immediately taken to the operating room at St. Luke’s to remove the dead tissue on his leg. But the leg couldn’t be saved, and surgeons amputated it above the knee that day.

The razor blade he swallowed was found lodged in a segment of Merchant’s intestines that had twisted — a complication of his Crohn’s disease. Doctors performed a colostomy to remove the blade and that part of his intestines, Monteleone said.

Merchant says the untreated infection also caused a stroke, “uncontrollable” pain in his leg, encephalopathy, lung and kidney failure and other medical problems.

He was discharged from St. Luke’s on March 8, 2016, about a month after being admitted. It took about seven months for Merchant to be given a prosthetic device for his leg, which “led to preventable complications” that Merchant blames on Corizon.

Merchant is back in the prison now and continues to have health problems, Monteleone said. The prosthetic for his leg wasn’t fitted properly, so he gets around with a wheelchair, the lawyer said.

Merchant seeks a jury trial for allegations that Corizon, IDOC and others associated with his prison care violated his civil rights; showed medical negligence and/or malpractice; and failed to hire, train and supervise qualified medical staff.

Merchant also filed Tuesday for prelitigation screening before the Idaho Board of Medicine — a screening required before he could sue any of the physicians who treated him at the prison. The outcome of that screening process will be confidential, but it could result in more defendants being added to the lawsuit.

History of problems

Corizon has been sued over alleged failure to provide medical care at prisons across the country — facing more than 660 lawsuits in a five-year period, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Corizon, which contracts with more than 500 jails and prisons in more than 20 states and rakes in at least $1.4 billion annually, has been plagued with accusations that it fails to meet basic medical needs, leading, in some cases, to inmates’ deaths,” the Washington Post reported in October. “Over the past few years, Corizon has paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits filed by inmates and their families.”

Corizon has been Idaho’s prison health care contractor since 2005. In 2012, a report commissioned as part of a decades-old inmate lawsuit deemed its care at ISCI “cruel and unusual,” a conclusion the state and Corizon strongly rejected. The state reached an agreement to make some changes, but a federal judge this fall concluded that IDOC’s health services administrator, Corizon officials and certain medical workers never even read the court-ordered plan for at least a year. An IDOC official realized the problem in 2015, the Associated Press reported, and the state and Corizon are now compliant with the plan.

Other lawsuits: Parents of a woman who died in an Oregon county jail in 2014 sued Corizon and the county in November 2016, alleging she was denied medical help while detoxing from heroin, The Oregonian reported.

Corizon and Florida’s corrections department were sued in 2015 over allegations that about 1,800 current and former inmates were denied medical care for hernias. The lawsuit ended in a $1.7 million settlement, according to the Miami Herald.

And, a lawsuit filed in October claims Corizon’s medical staff at a Kansas prison did not treat an inmate for a fungal infection that damaged his brain and ultimately killed him, the Kansas City Star reported. The inmate’s mother said medical staff ignored her repeated requests to help him as over four months, he became disoriented, had blurred vision and slurred speech, drank his own urine and told prison infirmary employees that it felt “like something is eating my brain.”

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @audreydutton