Editor’s note: This story is an abbreviated, free version of a story detailing The Frontier’s investigation into deaths in Tulsa’s jail, including the death of Elliott Williams. The full story can be found here.

One year before a paralyzed veteran endured a slow death without food or water on the floor of his cell, an assistant district attorney sent an ominous email warning the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office not to ignore “any and all signs” of trouble with the jail’s health-care system.

The email from Andrea Wyrick, an assistant district attorney for Tulsa County, noted that Oklahoma County had sued the company providing medical care in that county’s jail for falsifying records to cover up understaffing. The same company was paid $5 million per year to provide medical care in Tulsa’s jail, where several prisoners had already died that year under questionable circumstances.

“This is very serious, especially in light of the three cases we have now — what else will be coming?” Wyrick wrote in the email to Josh Turley, risk manager for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.

“It is one thing to say we have a contract .. to cover medical services and they are indemnifying us … It is another issue to ignore any and all signs we receive of possible issues or violations,” she wrote.

Her email was written one year before Elliott Williams, a 37-year-old U.S. Army veteran and businessman, died in the jail after days without food, water or medical attention with a broken neck.

The email is among previously undisclosed documents obtained by The Frontier as part of an investigation into deaths of inmates in Tulsa’s David L. Moss Correctional Center, including Williams’ 2011 death.

The Frontier’s investigation has found:

  • Out of more than two dozen medical professionals and TCSO jail staff who crossed Williams’ path before he died, only two employees were held accountable for his treatment in any way. One was a black detention officer who claims in a racial discrimination suit that TCSO fired her after she tried to help Williams.
  • Oklahoma licensing board records do not reflect any disciplinary actions against the doctors and nurses due to their involvement in Williams’ case. The psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Harnish, still works at the jail and the medical director, Dr. Phillip Washburn, works at a family medicine clinic in Sapulpa.
  • Williams’ death was investigated by the OSBI while then-Sheriff Stanley Glanz was on the agency’s commission, which hires and fires the director. The agent who conducted the investigation said in a deposition he did not watch the videotape depicting Williams’ treatment and death. The OSBI report, half as long as TCSO’s 82-page internal report, minimizes important factors leading to Williams’ death.
  • Audits and investigations in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 found the jail failed to provide basic medical and mental care to prisoners. A medical expert hired by the county reviewed 52 prisoner medical charts and reported that six prisoners who died in 2009 and 2010 might have lived with adequate mental and medical health care.
  • Estimating the number of prisoners whose deaths may have been prevented with better medical care in the jail is difficult. Some staff members had a practice of feigning efforts to resuscitate dead inmates “so that the jail would not become a ‘crime scene,’ “ according to a 2013 affidavit by the jail’s former director of nursing.

The Sheriff’s Office and the company that purchased the jail’s former medical provider declined interview requests for this story.

‘Treated worse than a POW’

Williams, a 37-year-old U.S. Army veteran who ran his own wholesale business, sustained a broken neck in the jail during a mental breakdown. Jail video shows he received no medical care, food or water for several days before he died in 2011.

The jail’s psychiatrist, nurses and detention staff thought Williams was “faking” paralysis and ignored his cries for help. Two jail supervisors laughed at him and asked “who had anally sodomized him,” a former detention officer claims. 

The Sheriff’s Office didn’t take Williams’ mugshot and prosecutors didn’t charge him with a crime until two hours after his death. The Tulsa County DA’s office filed a misdemeanor charge of obstructing the police, stemming from Williams’ refusal to sit down on a curb.

Williams’ brother said relatives were not allowed to visit Elliott Williams in the jail. Kevin Williams wept as he spoke to The Frontier about watching video footage of his brother’s last days.

“He’s calling out for help the whole time and nobody helps him. … At the end you can tell he knows nobody’s going to help him and he has given up and he’s thinking, “Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ “

Kevin Williams said he wants an outside agency such as the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation of his brother’s death.

Attorney Dan Smolen, who filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Williams’ estate, said his firm, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, and Williams’ family “have been fighting for years to get this case to trial and to reveal its gruesome facts to the public-at-large.”

“Elliott Williams was a black veteran who was willing to fight for our country, but he was treated worse than a POW — in a U.S. jail in the Bible Belt,” Smolen said.

Williams’ death drew national attention earlier this month after a story by The Frontier recounted details of his death and how he was deprived of food, water and medical attention for days. The story was shared thousands of times on social media nationwide.

Of the two employees fired after Williams’ death, one is a detention officer who claims she begged her supervisors to send Williams to a hospital. The former detention officer, Tammy Hanley, has filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, saying she was accused of falsifying logbooks but “adamantly disputes” that allegation.

Sheriff Vic Regalado declined to comment on Williams’ case and issued a written statement.

“Sheriff Regalado is committed to administering the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office with positive leadership, accountability and compassion … and will strive to make any necessary improvements at the jail.”

Turley, still TCSO’s risk manager, is now running for Tulsa County Commissioner against incumbent Karen Keith. In an interview with The Frontier, Turley said he couldn’t discuss the case but called Williams’ treatment in the jail “unacceptable.”

tulsa county sheriff's office

The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Many of the problems occurred under Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc.,  which changed ownership in 2014. A spokesman for the new parent company, Correct Care Solutions Group Holdings, LLC, declined to comment.

Audits and reviews in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 documented the failure of TCSO and its private medical provider, CHMO, to abide by the state jail standards law and accrediting agency standards governing inmate mental and medical care.

In some cases, the treatment of sick, injured and dying prisoners appeared inhumane.

The jail’s medical director, Dr. Andrew Adusei, refused to examine a mentally ill inmate with stitches in his wrists from a prior suicide attempt.

“I won’t see him unless he’s septic,” Adusei reportedly told the jail’s former director of nursing, Tammy Harrington.

Adusei was the subject of a 2012 memo from Maj. John Bowman to then-Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette.

Adusei was giving inmates injections of a saltwater “placebo” — apparently because he thought they were faking illness — and giving inmates injections in their jugular veins. Adusei had also been “asked to leave the surgical residency program at OU,” Bowman’s letter states.

CHMO’s contract was suspended in October 2013 and the county signed a contract with Armor Correctional Services, of Florida. Armor is currently paid $5 million per year to hire and supervise the full-time equivalent of about 40 employees including doctors, nurses and nurse aides.

Though the jail changed medical providers, some of the key personnel from the past remain in place.

Harnish, the psychiatrist who thought Williams was faking paralysis in 2011, still works at the jail, now as an Armor contract employee.

Robinette, chief deputy in charge of the jail since 2008, is still involved in jail operations today, supervising construction of four new pods.

Williams’ death came one month after a critical federal audit of the jail. When asked about Williams’ case during a deposition, Washburn said: “People just die sometimes.”