As an 18-year-old vomited, lost control of his bowels, and died slowly in a West Palm Beach juvenile jail cell last July, guards refused to call 911 for more than six hours. A supervisor on duty allegedly thought Eric Perez was faking his illness, although the teenager had twice injured his head before the vomiting began, according to a grand jury report released yesterday on the incident.
"It is indisputable that, given the conduct of the detention officers, Mr. Perez never had the chance to survive," the report says.
Perez died July 10, 2011 of a cerebral hemorrhage. But the grand jury declined to charge anyone involved with homicide, because experts could not determine exactly what caused
the hemorrhage and whether prompt medical attention could have saved Perez's life. The grand jury also did not charge Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) officials with child neglect, because Perez was 18 and legally not considered a child.
The last hours of Perez's life were painful and gruesome.
On the evening of July 9, guards were searching the kids in custody at the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center to make sure they didn't take any food from the cafeteria back to their cells. Perez was accused of trying to swipe a snack, and the guards didn't like it. They "roughly tossed [him] in the air, striking the wall and/or floor with his head and/or shoulder as he came back down," the grand jury report says. Security cameras video showed Perez was "unsteady on his feet" after the fall.
Perez was sent to bed at 9:30 p.m., but woke up four hours later screaming and hallucinating, yelling "get it off me, get it off me." Two jail officers came to his cell and saw Perez staggering around. He crawled out of his cell because he couldn't stand. He started rocking himself, screaming "it hurts, it hurts."
As the officers watched, Perez tried to stand, stumbled, and smacked his head on the corner of a table. The officers did nothing, according to the grand jury. They simply gave him a mattress bad to lie on, and he fell asleep.
A 2:22 a.m. Perez woke up, rolled off the mattress and vomited. Officers testified that he defecated himself. He could not stand when they tried to lift them. Finally, a supervising officer called the superintendent of the jail for help. The superintendent said to call the facility's nurse, but she didn't answer two phone calls. The supervising officer called his boss back and said everything was OK, because Perez was asleep again. Another officer testified that she heard the supervisor say "he did not call 911 because he thought the youth was faking and he did not want to fill out extra paperwork," the grand jury report says.
By 5:15 a.m. the smell from Perez's sickness was strong enough to prompt the officers to clean him. He was too weak to stand in the shower, so they dragged him on the mattress pad to another "medical confinement cell" and covered him with a sheet. He was snoring loudly. The guards left the door to the cell open, until a supervisor shut it at 6 a.m.
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At 7 a.m. on July 10, Perez died. Yet the guards in the jail didn't notice. A guard sitting outside his cell checked on him every ten minutes, thinking he was asleep. He had been dead for about an hour before someone checked his pulse and called 911. Emergency responders could not resuscitate him.
"It is abundantly clear that the DJJ officers failed to give [Perez] the medical care and attention that any reasonable person would have provided," the grand jury report says.
Although it did not issue any criminal charges against DJJ officials, the grand jury did make several policy recommendations, calling for a basic level of competency at the government agency charged with caring for troubled kids.
DJJ should have a medical professional onsite at its facilities 24/7, guards should receive training on par with that given to other prison guards, and any child in custody complaining of a medical condition should immediately be seen by a medical professional, the jury said. Also, the jury said state laws regarding criminal neglect of people held in DJJ facilities should be changed, so the death of an 18-year-old can be prosecuted.