An Oceanside man who had a medical condition involving swelling bouts that could escalate into breathing emergencies died last summer in the custody of Nassau County’s jail despite what his family said were repeated pleas for more help.
In addition, fellow inmates told Newsday they saw clear signs that John Gleeson’s life was in danger on July 14, 2014. One of these witnesses and Gleeson’s family said he had made multiple trips to the jail’s medical unit that day.
And, less than two hours before his death, Gleeson — who’d been facing a burglary charge — told witnesses that jail medical officials simply gave him medication and then sent him back to his cell for the night.
Family members said jail health officials had previously treated Gleeson, 40, for angioedema, a condition where swelling happens under the skin’s surface, and knew its risks.
Before he died, Gleeson’s neck became so swollen that he “looked like a bullfrog,” one inmate said.
“There is nobody that would have looked at him and thought any different other than, ‘You’re going to die,’ ” said Morgan Smith, another witness also then jailed in the same cellblock.
Gleeson’s family has filed a notice of claim saying they intend to sue the county, the jail and Armor Correctional Health Services — the Miami-based company that provides medical care to inmates under a county contract.
“They knew it was serious and they let him suffer and die in that jail,” said John Gleeson, 66, the late inmate’s father and a retired FDNY battalion chief.
County officials declined to comment on Gleeson’s case, with a spokesman citing pending litigation.
Teresa Estefan, an Armor spokeswoman, responded to questions by saying in an email that the company is committed to quality patient care. She said Armor strictly adheres to “medical protocols for individual situations, diagnoses and incidents,” but cited a medical privacy law and wouldn’t respond further.
A state report on the inmate’s death could be out in early fall. Nassau police said they’ve closed their investigation, finding that the death involved a medical condition and no criminality.
A police department spokesman said an ambulance took Gleeson to the hospital after police arrived at the jail for a medical call and found CPR already in progress.
Gleeson’s death certificate shows medical staff at Nassau University Medical Center pronounced him dead at 11:20 p.m. on July 14.
Before mid-2011, the East Meadow hospital, which is next door to the jail, held the contract for inmate medical care. But in a bid to save money, Nassau legislators agreed that year to a public-private partnership with Armor, giving the company its first two-year county contract at an annual cost of about $11 million.
A year later, the state Commission of Correction found Armor had provided “grossly negligent health care” in connection with the 2011 fatal heart attack of a 47-year-old inmate who had complained repeatedly about chest pains.
The commission again criticized the company’s standard of care after a 32-year-old Iraq War veteran committed suicide while jailed in 2012. The suicide happened inside the jail’s mental health observation unit for newly admitted prisoners. It was the fifth suicide at the facility in just more than two years.
The vet’s suicide was the only one that happened after Armor’s takeover from NUMC. But it also came months after the state ordered Nassau Sheriff Michael Sposato to review procedures with Armor for that jail unit because of a 2010 suicide.
The state’s more recent findings followed two consent decrees, the first in the 1980s, that ordered federal oversight of the jail, including its inmate medical care. The latest stint of that supervision, which ended in 2005, mandated a revamp of the jail’s medical care system.
That second consent decree had been sparked by the 1999 beating death of an inmate by correction officers after the inmate had begged for methadone.
On the last day of his life, Gleeson, an unemployed electrician and divorced father of two, pleaded not guilty to a burglary indictment with the hope his court case would end soon and he’d be going home.
Family said his life had taken a downturn after he started getting high after a doctor prescribed strong painkillers following an on-the-job injury.
Gleeson’s father said he had made a decision not to pay his son’s bail after his May 2014 arrest. But the elder Gleeson said he also felt hopeful.
He believed time behind bars would put his only son — a laid-back guy who made friends easily and was devoted to his daughter Erin, now 13, and son John, now 11 — on a better path.
Gleeson’s lawyer, James Pascarella of Mineola, said prosecutors had started to talk about a plea deal with a sentence of time served.
Police had alleged Gleeson broke into a Baldwin garage. Records show he told a detective that a friend knew people living on the property and said they could pick up material that they planned to sell for scrap.
The notice of claim that Pascarella filed in October not only blames county and Armor officials for Gleeson’s death, but also says they conspired to cover up facts and circumstances related to how he died.
The claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, also alleges wrongful death, medical malpractice, gross negligence, reckless disregard for health and failure to protect an inmate.
It says officials at the jail knew about Gleeson’s angioedema, but failed to give him medications to treat it and were “totally unprepared to deal with an attack . . . and John Gleeson died as a result.”
Pascarella said unofficial information coming from people at the jail — sources he said weren’t inmates — helped Gleeson’s family learn what happened in the hours before his death.
Gleeson told health officials about his condition when he arrived at the jail, and soon after, they treated him for swelling in his hands, his family said.
Before his arraignment on the last day of his life, Gleeson had showed a wrist inflammation to a fellow inmate while on his way to court.
The swelling eventually spread to his chest, neck and head, according to his family’s notice of claim.
It says he was sent back to his cell after a trip to the medical unit in the early afternoon. It adds that Gleeson then got “no adequate attention” despite continuing to ask for help as hours went by and the swelling grew worse.
Their claim also alleges Gleeson “still was left to remain in his cell” until 7 p.m., when his neck was twice its normal size and he was having serious breathing trouble.
By 10 p.m., it also adds, Gleeson’s neck was nearly three times its normal size and correction officers started calling for medical personnel, as inmates called out that Gleeson needed help. By then, Gleeson had collapsed and officials called an ambulance to take him to the hospital, the filing says.
“He voiced to them that he was in need of medical attention many times, and they sent him back,” Pascarella said of jail health officials. “How does a medical professional not see the same thing, when lay people who are cellmates and other people in the tier, they knew it?”
Swelling closed his throat
An autopsy report Gleeson’s family got months later from the medical examiner’s office said his cause of death was cardiorespiratory arrest due to laryngeal edema and angioedema, according to the attorney.
Phillip Song, a physician at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary who teaches at Harvard Medical School, said that means the man’s throat swelled shut, he couldn’t breathe, and his heart and lungs failed.
He said triggers for angioedema can include a bad allergic reaction, and in rare cases, an enzyme deficiency.
Both Song and Jonathan A. Bernstein, a professor at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine whose medical practice focuses on allergy and immunology, said the condition’s cause is usually never found. Throat swelling would be a life-threatening emergency because of the danger of airway blockage, they said.
The National Institutes of Health says treatment for the condition can include the use of antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, an inhaler and epinephrine shots.
Margie Gleeson, John Gleeson’s mother, said he would try to manage his symptoms with Benadryl, but knew he had to go to a hospital if he had trouble breathing or swelling spread to his chest or neck.
She said her son’s attacks started about 13 years ago and she took him to a hospital eight to 10 times to treat them.
Inmates recall last hours
In separate Newsday interviews, three former inmates from the same cellblock who interacted with Gleeson offered accounts of what they saw in the hours before his death.
Witnesses said they’d seen Gleeson suffer from other swelling episodes in the weeks prior, but it reached a new level that day.
Smith, 45, a Navy veteran, said Gleeson’s arms, eyes and neck puffed up and something looked seriously wrong. Gleeson had been “back and forth to medical” several times that day, Smith said. “You saw John Gleeson, the first thing that you would, anybody that had a brain would think, ‘Why are you not in the hospital?’ ” said Smith, now in prison on a felony drunken-driving conviction.
By that night, Gleeson’s throat had swelled to shocking proportions, according to Smith and Joseph Sorrentino, a laborer from Wantagh then jailed in a stolen property case.
“He looked like a bullfrog. It was bad,” said Sorrentino, 41.
Around 9:30 p.m., Gleeson returned from a trip to the medical unit, the witnesses said.
Sorrentino said Gleeson could barely talk. “My throat, I can’t breathe,” he told Sorrentino in a labored voice. “I can’t even swallow water.”
The two witnesses recalled Gleeson saying jail health officials gave him medication and sent him away.
“They gave me a Benadryl and sent me back to the dorm,” Gleeson told Smith.
“We’re like, ‘Dude, go back to medical,’ ” Smith recalled telling him.
“Oh, they won’t,” Gleeson replied. “They’ve done everything that they could. They sent me back to the dorm. What am I supposed to do?”
“I remember this like it happened two minutes ago,” Smith said. ” . . . I’m looking at this kid and I’m like, ‘You’re gonna die.’ We’re about ready to lock in. You’re gonna be in your cell, locked in from 10 o’clock ’til six in the morning.”
As the men spoke, the guards clanked the cell doors, a signal for the inmates to get in their cells for the night.
Witnesses said that about 15 minutes later, the area erupted with the sounds of yelling and banging as some inmates tried to summon correction officers.
Smith and Sorrentino couldn’t see Gleeson’s cell, but heard what unfolded.
“They were saying, ‘He can’t breathe . . . C.O.s, help this guy!’ ” Sorrentino said.
Dave Graf, 35, who’d seen Gleeson’s wrist swelling that morning, said he could see Gleeson’s cell from one tier up. Then jailed in a misdemeanor drug case, the Seaford electrician was using radio headphones when the noise caught his attention. He saw an officer approach Gleeson’s cell with a flashlight, shine it inside and unlock the door.
“John came out and his neck . . . it was big,” said Graf.
Then Gleeson sat at a card table, “leaning like he was tired,” Graf said. “You could tell he was like hurting.”
Witnesses then saw a medical staffer and officers among those who escorted Gleeson from the area. “Everybody’s like, ‘You know, I hope he’s all right,’ ” said Sorrentino. “You know, ‘Pray for him.’ . . . The mood was real like dim for him, you know?”
Witnesses saw police there in the morning. Smith said they looked through Gleeson’s cell and took photos.
“If you didn’t hear, John Gleeson died last night,” he recalled detectives saying, before asking any inmates with information to make a statement.
Smith said he spoke in front of the group.
“What happened was, it was medical malpractice and they let that man die,” he told police.
State report due in fall
A report from the state Commission of Correction could be ready in early fall, spokeswoman Janine Kava said. She said she couldn’t comment otherwise because the probe was ongoing into whether the jail followed correction law, met minimum operation standards and provided appropriate medical care.
In 2012, the commission told the county executive’s office to conduct an inquiry into Armor’s fitness as the jail’s medical care provider after finding Armor negligent after the 2011 death.
In June, the legislature’s Republican-led Rules Committee approved a two-year renewal of Armor’s contract.
It happened even as Democratic legislators questioned the move after a Newsday report detailed concerns that a judge, a former bar association president and the New York Civil Liberties Union had about inadequate inmate medical care.
A sheriff’s department official had told legislators that Armor’s contract expired in May and the department “ran out of time” to develop a new request for proposals.
This spring, a sheriff’s spokesman said Armor’s contract had enhanced jail security and public safety by dramatically reducing off-site transportation of inmates to unsecure community health service providers.
Gleeson’s father said County Executive Edward Mangano called the family to offer condolences for their loss, but didn’t have any details to share with them about what had happened.
“I want justice for my son. . . . There’s no reason he should have died,” the father said. “The inhumanity that they showed my son, and how ridiculous the medical care is there, has to be brought out.”
The Gleesons say someone should face criminal charges, and also question why the hospital shouldn’t still have the inmate medical contract instead of a company that is fighting lawsuits in several states.
“Mangano saved $7 million. That’s what it is,” Margie Gleeson said, months after the county executive touted Armor’s contract as a yearly cost savings in his state of the county address.
Reforms have to be made at the jail before someone else dies, according to Pascarella, the Gleesons’ attorney. “They’re going to fail someone else unless something changes. There has to be some accountability,” he said.
A summer later, the grief that Gleeson’s family feels remains tinged with anger. “It makes me feel like they murdered him,” his mother said. “That’s how this whole thing hurts for me.”