After an X-ray revealed a life-threatening injury, nurses, a doctor and prison guards locked Justin Barrientos in a cell where he suffered for hours without care and lay dead for more than 90 minutes before anyone noticed.
Following Barrientos’ January death, a Department of Corrections investigator Tommy Stranahan recommended manslaughter charges against Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility staff, according to a report provided to the Comanche County County District Attorney. Stranahan also found evidence of misdemeanor violations of neglect, refusal of duties and obstructing an investigation, according to the report.
Almost 10 months after his death, no charges have been filed, spurring Barrientos’ mother to seek justice in court.
Linda Gray is suing The GEO Group, the publicly traded company that operates Oklahoma’s lone private prison, for the death of her son, according to a claim filed today in federal court. The federal lawsuit also names a prison doctor and nurse, correction officers, Express Mobile Diagnostics, which provides X-ray diagnostics to the prison, and a radiologist claiming inadequate medical care, cruel and unusual punishment, negligence and emotional distress.
“My son wasn’t a throw-away,” Gray said. “The way he died, the suffering and the isolation he went through, and the callousness of the people who were supposed to take care of him, all of that could have been prevented. I wouldn’t want anyone else’s son to suffer like my son suffered.”
Barrientos, 31, was serving 15 years for robbery and possessing a firearm after being convicted of a felony, according to court records.
For nearly four days in January, Barrientos coughed, vomited, seized, passed out and defecated on himself in a cell without help from medical staff.
Barrientos swallowed a plastic spork earlier that week causing chest and stomach pain, according to the report. After receiving an X-ray at the prison, Barrientos was returned to the cell where he suffered for days and was refused care, the investigation revealed. Once, when Barrientos complained of stomach pain, a nurse told him to fill out a form requesting medical attention.
Prison staff knew Barrientos had severe mental illness that caused suicidal thoughts, and in an attempt to self-harm, he sometimes ingested things he shouldn’t, according to Stranahan’s report. One nurse recommended he be restricted to finger foods to avoid giving him silverware. She told Stranahan the suggestion was denied.
Barrientos was finally taken to see a doctor on Jan. 31 after a nurse saw him swallow another spork and begin vomiting, according to the report. He was left in the cell for nearly an hour before being taken to the medical unit.
Barrientos received another X-ray, which revealed air in his abdomen, signaling a life-threatening puncture wound, according to the report. The X-ray technician, Joe Wiley, sent the images to off-site radiologist Dr. Michael Murphy, who marked them as normal. But Wiley quickly spotted an obvious and dangerous abnormality and did not wait for Murphy’s diagnosis to alert the prison doctor.
Wiley showed the images to Dr. Michael Boger and told him Barrientos was not pretending to have stomach pain and his condition was serious, according to Stranahan’s report. After observing Barrientos through a window, Boger determined he wasn’t in enough pain to have a perforated intestine and that his stomach discomfort was the result of constipation, the investigation found. Boger told the investigator he never spoke to Barrientos or examined him.
According to the report, when Stranahan interviewed Boger in March, “Boger closed his eyes, slumped down in the chair, took a deep breath, and replied, ‘I looked at him, and that’s what I based my assessment on, is he looked so normal, unaffected by it, because I would expect somebody to just really be hurting.’”
Barrientos was given Tums antacids for his stomach pain and then moved to a medical cell where he was placed on suicide watch with constant supervision.
While under the watch of Officer Kenneth Smith, Barrientos fell several times, hitting his head at least once, according to the report. After one of the falls, the guard called for a nurse.
Video footage reviewed by Stranahan showed registered nurse Kristine Kushner and Smith’s supervisor Sgt. Kalisa Blanchard arriving at the cell at 9:13 p.m. and staying for less than one minute. Smith told the investigator that Kushner said, “That’s just Barrientos. That’s what he does. He’s ok.”
The footage conflicted with Boger’s and Kusner’s assessments, according to the report, which described Barrientos in extreme abdominal pain and a dramatically declining state of health.
At 9:14 p.m., Barrientos moved his leg, according to Stranahan’s report. He never moved again.
Barrientos lay lifeless on the cell floor until 10:53 p.m. when another nurse found him dead, according to the report.
Barrientos, 31, died from an infection from the hole in his bowel, according to the lawsuit.
Nurse Erin Pena told the investigator that if Kusner had properly examined Barrientos, he would likely still be alive, according to the report. Other GEO nurses reported Kusner to the Oklahoma Board of Nursing for refusing to examine or check on Barrientos for several hours, the investigation found.
This isn’t the first time Boger has been accused of refusing to care for a patient. Another inmate at the Lawton prison, Alford Bradley, died in 2021 after Boger withheld treatment for a hernia because Bradley did not appear to be in pain, according to the lawsuit. Boger had his privileges as an emergency room physician revoked before being hired by Geo Group, the lawsuit claims.
“Why is it that under those circumstances neither the doctor or nurses felt moved to even physically examine him?” Gray’s attorney Paul DeMuro said during a phone interview. “The only thing that makes sense is that because he struggled with serious mental illness, they treated him differently and that’s consistent with how people with mental illness are treated in the state’s criminal justice system from beginning to end.”
DeMuro also represents clients in a class action lawsuit alleging that state mental health officials are violating the rights of people who have been found incompetent to stand trial but have been left languishing in jails while they await treatment.
Before entering the Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility, Barrientos was found incompetent to stand trial, according to court records. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe substance use disorder, his competency results showed. Gray said her son wanted to be a minister and planned to attend bible college until his mental health got in the way.
The lack of mental health treatment in prison resulted in Barrientos’ need for emergency medical care beyond the capabilities of prison staff. But prison operators are on the hook for inmate medical costs, which, according to the lawsuit, led to the reluctance of staff to call for advanced care.
“At the heart of this lawsuit is whether the state of Oklahoma should be outsourcing constitutional obligation to care for people and inmates in their custody,” DeMuro said. “When you have an entity that’s driven by profits first, as opposed to driven by the obligation to provide care for people, then you’re going to have results like this.”
Florida-based Geo Group reported $2.3 billion in revenue last year, according to the company’s earnings report.
In an emailed statement, Geo Group Spokesman Christopher Ferreira said, “We offer our condolences to Mr. Barrientos’ family and remain committed to ensuring the health and safety of all those in our care. GEO will have no further comment while this litigation is pending.”
The tough-on-crime movement of the 1990s led to the need for more inmate housing nationwide and in Oklahoma. Private prisons answered the call. As recently as five years ago, about 1 in 3 male inmates statewide were housed in privately operated prisons, which are often criticized for prioritizing profits over inmate health and safety.
A recent decline in Oklahoma’s inmate population prompted officials to bring inmates back under state control. The Department of Corrections took over the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville last month and is positioned to do the same with the Lawton Facility as soon as next year.
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.