Inmate Loses Fight for Life, But Court Case Lives On

This photo of Ruben Santana from an early time in his life was supplied by the family for his 2016 obituary.
This photo of Ruben Santana from an early time in his life was supplied by the family for his 2016 obituary.

An inmate at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility spent two years fighting for his life, a fight he lost in 2016. But with help from the lawyer who sued the government on his behalf, the battle for his constitutional rights wages on.

At the time that he died at the age of 65, St. Thomas resident Ruben Santana was serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder. According to St. Croix attorney Lee Rohm, who represented Santana in a federal civil lawsuit, failure of the Bureau of Corrections and Juan Luis Hospital to properly address mounting health issues turned Santana’s prison term into a death sentence.

Those ailments included a previously undiagnosed HIV infection, revealed by a medical test conducted in January 2012.

From July 2014 Santana pursued a case alleging his constitutional rights to protection while in prison were violated under the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. But much of the case focused on the provision that forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Under the United States Code, Chapter 42, Section 1983, a prisoner serving time upon conviction can claim a violation of failure to protect if they are incarcerated under conditions that pose the risk of substantial harm, or because authorities showed deliberate indifference to those conditions.

“The Supreme Court has held that prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of cruel and unusual punishment when they exhibit “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners,” the lawsuit says, in part.

Santana’s lawsuit provides detailed instances where risk of substantial harm and deliberate indifference could be shown. The case chronicles how a complaint about a painful toe and a neglect to provide timely treatment evolved into gangrene, leading to the amputation of the inmate’s leg.

Complications set in both before and after. Santana filed sick-call reports with Golden Grove, asking to be sent for follow up care of an infected toe that turned into a blackened foot, seeping with pus. There were also requests for prescribed medications.

Several were ignored or delayed. Health problems worsened and over the course of the surgery to remove the leg, doctors discovered the HIV infection had progressed to the point that the medicines Santana were given no longer worked.

“Mr. Santana was an HIV patient and the HIV drugs are very expensive. Before the operation the HIV medications were no longer managing his HIV,” John said.

And according to filings in the case, it became apparent that illness and neglect had brought the inmate to the verge of death. A diagnosis of kidney failure turned up in January 2016.

Two months later, prison officials took action.

“On March 6, 2016, in the early morning hours, plaintiff was awakened in his cell, required to leave without any of his possessions and was placed in a van and transported to CCA-Saguaro in Arizona,” an amended complaint, filed in November said.

Left behind in the transfer were medications, medical records and personal property

Ruben Santana died in Saguaro Correctional Center on Dec. 18, 2016. An article appearing in the Final Central News, online, quoted a local police report.

A nurse at the prison told them Santana was expected to die because he had become sickly.

Attorney Eric Taliban, with the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project says his organization has several lawsuits filed against private prisons for failing to provide adequate medical care.

But ultimately, he said, the V.I. government must take the blame.

“The Virgin Islands government cannot shirk their constitutional responsibilities,” Taliban said.

With his health in decline, repeated requests for medication and treatment were addressed slowly, if at all. Now the inmate’s surviving relative is continuing the case as a wrongful death action.

A portion of that complaint says that deliberate indifference to the inmate’s serious medical needs left Santana to die.

Among those named in the lawsuit are the Bureau of Corrections, Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, individual prison officials and doctors, prison guards and administrators.

Lawyers representing one of the doctors has reached a court settlement. Part of the agreement calls for the removal of several defendants from further liability.

John has filed an objection and says she wants to see all of the parties held accountable. The case is now headed for mediation.