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Yeisleny Nodarse inhaled sharply when she walked into the Kendall Regional Medical Center's intensive care unit.
It was March 2007 and the pretty, raven-haired 20-year-old was there to visit her uncle, Rodolfo Ramos. But she barely recognized the man who lay in the bed before her. His eyes, once a warm, mischievous brown, were half-closed, dull, and unfocused. He was slack-jawed — lips purple, swollen, and cracked. His normally latte-color skin was pale and tinged with death.
Shaking, Yeisleny stepped closer and gently stroked his skinny arm. She peered at his face, focusing on his nose and cheeks, where there were dozens of tiny, raised black spots. She would later discover they were ant bites.
Her eyes traveled slowly down his body, past the open sores on his forearms to bruises on his emaciated legs. His hands were enormous, "like an elephant's," she recalls. It was difficult to know where to look without cringing. The last time she had seen Tio Rodolfo, he was a barrel-chested, grinning guy who liked to salsa dance. Now his feet had a bluish tint, and there were open sores on the tips of his big toes. These wounds, she would learn, were the work of rats.
Then Yeisleny noticed the 41-year-old's ankles were shackled to the bed.
I know he was in jail before he was brought to the hospital, she thought angrily. But why is he shackled? Where's he going to go? He's dying.
Ramos had been accused of kidnapping and battery when he walked into Miami-Dade's Metro West jail in February 2006. He left a year later — before a trial could be held — in a coma. An ambulance delivered him to Kendall Regional. After seeing his lifeless body — and hearing from a nurse he was 93 percent brain-dead — Yeisleny had called a lawyer and shared her suspicion: The people in the jail "were killing her uncle," she said. Not the inmates, but the guards and medical staff. Ramos, who was diabetic and had other health problems, didn't receive insulin or the proper medical care while behind bars. "He was left to die," Yeisleny says flatly. Indeed Ramos shuffled off this mortal coil April 14; the official cause of death is still undetermined.
Ramos is one of at least seven Miami-Dade inmates who have passed away under suspicious circumstances since January 2006. Some of the others:
• Kippo Pruitt, age 51, was in jail on a drug charge. He died May 21 after slipping into a diabetic coma. Family members say he didn't receive needed insulin.
• Eugene Smith was awaiting trial on attempted murder. The 21-year-old was in a solitary cell and on suicide watch when he overdosed April 1. It is believed he had hoarded medicine provided by prison health care.
• Lazaro Diaz, age 36, complained of chest pains while in jail 18 months ago. He had a heart attack a few days later. His pleas for help might have been ignored by jailers — though they found no "inappropriate behavior" by the staff.
• Willie Daniels, a 57-year-old mentally ill inmate, died of hypothermia in January 2006. Arrested for lunging at an officer, he was found comatose in the psychiatric ward, his temperature a chilly 79 degrees. Jailers called the death accidental.
• Twenty-two-year-old accused gang member Arlin Madrid Reyes complained of stomach pains November 1. He died six days later of salmonella poisoning. Jailers couldn't find the source, but the kitchen was "under health department review," according to an investigation, and 18 others also showed signs of salmonella.
At least 15 other former inmates claim they received shoddy medical care. Many contend they were permanently affected by the poor treatment. All but one were awaiting trial when the subpar care was administered.
Who's responsible? First there's the Corrections Health Service, which is run by the Jackson Public Health Trust and spends $24 million of taxpayers' money each year to care for county inmates. Trust Chairman Ernesto de la Fe, Vice Chairman John Copeland III and board member Javier Souto (who is also a county commissioner) didn't return repeated calls seeking comment.
One Public Health Trust board member — former Miami-Dade Police Capt. Diego Mello — was unaware of the travesty. "I haven't heard anything about this," Mello said when reached by phone. "What you're telling me is new."
Then there's Miami-Dade Corrections Chief Tim Ryan, who took the helm from Charles McRay in late 2006. He is ultimately charged with keeping inmates safe, and alive, while in custody. Following the August 6 suicide of inmate Christopher Walls (who was awaiting trial on charges of killing a bail bondsman) at Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, a full review of procedures is under way, the jail chief tells New Times. "[Corrections] investigates every inmate death," Ryan states via e-mail. "We are constantly reviewing policy, procedures, and practices to ensure that we maintain the expected operational levels of the community standards of care."
Says Miami attorney David Kubiliun, who has been in contact with many of the families of the ill and deceased — and plans to sue in federal court soon: "For many years this problem of medical care has been ignored. These people are criminals in the public's eye. No one really cares. But all of these guys have one thing in common: They aren't in a prison. They are accused in the eyes of the law. They are as innocent as you and I."