The Torturous, Completely Preventable Slow-Motion Death of Dennis Choquette

February 27, 2017
Westword

When he entered a for-profit Colorado prison in July 2014, Dennis Choquette had a serious but treatable foot malady related to diabetes.

But according to a lawsuit filed by his estate, his jailers repeatedly refused to address this problem as a way of saving money, thereby allowing his condition to deteriorate slowly and agonizingly over the course of more than a year.

He died in November 2016, on the very day that lawyers working on his behalf had been scheduled to file a motion asking a judge to set aside his sentence and order that he be admitted to a hospital for an amputation.

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Choquette was imprisoned in the Bent County Correctional Facility, a jail owned by Corrections Corporation of America. CCA, whose website currently lists thirteen jails or facilities in Colorado, including the one in Bent County, is at the center of the 1999 feature article by Alan Prendergast headlined "McPrison." And in 2013, Prendergast tackled the topic again in "Thirty Years of Private Prisons: New Report Details Trouble Behind Bars."

In the latter post, about a scathing condemnation of the firm by the group Grassroots Leadership, Prendergast wrote that CCA was "launched in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors" and has been criticized over the years based on allegations that its "for-profit model cuts too many corners, resulting in ill-trained and poorly paid staff," as well as "inadequate medical care."

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The length of time that elapsed between Choquette's entry into jail and his demise makes the manner of his passing even more tragic, in Holland's view. "This was a slow-motion death. In some cases of people dying in jail, people come in and their condition is exploding with urgency at that specific moment. But this was like watching a slow torture unfold."

Co-counsel Holland Edwards sees the story as an example of a larger problem.

"What happened to Dennis is exactly what's wrong with health care at corrections," she says. "They knew he had a condition, and it was treatable. But they refused to help him or to intervene even after we sued. Even when we brought to their attention that it was likely to result in irreparable harm or death, they still didn't want to help him. We went from trying to help our client to trying to figure out the value to his estate of them having killed him."

She argues that Choquette "died of deliberate indifference to his medical needs. He died because this Department of Corrections system and the Corrections Corporation of America were reckless with his medical care. Certainly, he had underlying medical conditions, like a lot of people in jail. He had diabetes and some heart issues. But his foot should have never gotten to the point where he needed amputation. He should still be alive today."

The length of time that elapsed between Choquette's entry into jail and his demise makes the manner of his passing even more tragic, in Holland's view. "This was a slow-motion death. In some cases of people dying in jail, people come in and their condition is exploding with urgency at that specific moment. But this was like watching a slow torture unfold."

Co-counsel Holland Edwards sees the story as an example of a larger problem.

"What happened to Dennis is exactly what's wrong with health care at corrections," she says. "They knew he had a condition, and it was treatable. But they refused to help him or to intervene even after we sued. Even when we brought to their attention that it was likely to result in irreparable harm or death, they still didn't want to help him. We went from trying to help our client to trying to figure out the value to his estate of them having killed him."

She argues that Choquette "died of deliberate indifference to his medical needs. He died because this Department of Corrections system and the Corrections Corporation of America were reckless with his medical care. Certainly, he had underlying medical conditions, like a lot of people in jail. He had diabetes and some heart issues. But his foot should have never gotten to the point where he needed amputation. He should still be alive today."