Woman neglected in jail went blind, begged for water before dying in Texas, lawsuit says

A woman was in dire need of help and hospitalization while in a “medical observation” cell, but the pretrial detainee was neglected by guards and staff in a Texas jail, according to a federal lawsuit.

Help came “too late” for Holly Barlow-Austin, who died on June 17, 2019, after spending two months at Bi-State Justice Center in Texarkana, Texas, the lawsuit says. Jail staff is accused of causing her death.

Barlow-Austin, who entered jail at 46 with HIV, was denied her prescription medications, rapidly deteriorated and went blind, and begged staff for water while detained in “deplorable and inhumane conditions,” an amended complaint filed in federal court says.

Now, Barlow-Austin’s family has been awarded $7 million in a “historic” lawsuit settlement, before the case was set to go to trial, according to an April 27 news release from civil rights law firm Budge & Heipt PLLC based in Seattle. The firm’s attorneys Erik Heipt and Edwin Budge and Texarkana attorney David Carter represented Barlow-Austin’s mother and husband in the case.

This is the largest known settlement over a jail-related death in state history, according to the attorneys.

The settlement comes more than three years after Barlow-Austin’s severe suffering during her final week in jail when she was “isolated and alone, in constant pain, blindly crawling around her cell, dehydrated and malnourished, living in filthy and inhumane conditions,” the release said.

McClatchy News contacted attorneys representing defendant LaSalle Southwest Corrections, which ran Bi-State Justice Center during Barlow-Austin’s detainment, for comment on April 27 and didn’t immediately receive a response.

The parties will file legal papers to dismiss claims against LaSalle, according to the release.

“Holly was a kind, compassionate person with a generous spirit — someone who always wanted to help people in need, even strangers. …What happened to her was inexcusable” Barlow-Austin’s mother and husband said in a joint statement.

“While no amount of money could bring our beloved Holly back, this victory will help give us some closure as we move forward,” they said. “And we hope and pray that it will lead to changes in how our jails treat people in their custody and will save some lives in the future.”

LaSalle Corrections runs 18 correctional facilities in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia. It no longer runs Bi-State Justice Center, according to KTAL News.

Lead attorney Heipt said that the law firm hopes the settlement “sends a powerful message to every single jail and prison in America that this type of blatant disregard for human life will not be tolerated.”

More on the case

The case stems from when Barlow-Austin was jailed after her arrest on accusations of violating probation on April 5, 2019, according to the complaint.

For nearly two months in jail, Barlow-Austin complained of concerning symptoms, such as severe headaches, nausea, neck pain and a large knot in her neck, according to the complaint.

She also complained of blurred vision,which eventually worsened to total blindness, as well as numbness in her legs before she could no longer walk and was seen crawling in her cell, the complaint says.

“Despite her alarming and progressively worsening symptoms, LaSalle never arranged to have her evaluated by a medical doctor,” according to the complaint.

Her husband repeatedly tried advocating on her behalf, the complaint says. When he repeatedly raised concerns about his wife’s condition between May 22 and May 28, his worries were dismissed by the jail’s nursing staff, the complaint says.

During her final 48 hours in jail, Barlow-Austin was emaciated, starving and dehydrated and in obvious pain, the complaint says.

Despite this, a nurse checked her vitals only once during this time, on the evening of June 10, when she was experiencing a heart rate over 100 beats per minute, having a hypertensive emergency and “blind, mentally confused, disoriented, shaky, unsteady,” according to the complaint.

She wouldn’t be taken to a hospital until 10 hours later, the complaint says. Meanwhile, jail surveillance footage recorded her final hours suffering in jail, the release said.

Barlow-Austin died of ”fungemia/sepsis due to fungus, cryptococcal meningitis, HIV/AIDS and accelerated hypertension” at a hospital on June 17, according to the complaint. She was 47.

When LaSalle Corrections ran Bi-State Justice Center, other inmates died from neglect before Barlow-Austin, according to Budge & Heipt.

The case’s “outcome should serve as a wake-up call to all private jail and prison operators—not just in Texas, but everywhere: If you’re going to cut corners and put profits over people’s lives, there will be a steep price to pay,” Heipt said.

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