The family of an HIV-positive Texas woman has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that she was subjected to abuse and neglect at a for-profit jail, leading to her death.
Holly Barlow-Austin, who died last year at age 46, was held in “deplorable and inhumane conditions of confinement,” which included denial of water and medications, according to the lawsuit, The New York Times reports. The suit names LaSalle Corrections, jail staffers, and Bowie County, Texas, as defendants. LaSalle Corrections, a for-profit company, operates jails and prisons in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, including the Bi-State Justice Center in Texarkana, Texas, where Barlow-Austin was held.
She was arrested in April 2019 on a charge of violating the terms of her probation. Her HIV was well-managed with medication when she was taken into custody, as were her mental health issues, the suit says. But officials at the jail did not administer her full medication regimen, and she became ill; by late May, she “could no longer walk or stand, and her vision was badly impaired,” according to the suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
She was placed in a medical observation cell in early June, then taken to a hospital June 11. She died June 17 of fungal meningitis. By the time she entered the hospital, her condition had deteriorated so much that it was too late to save her life, the suit contends.
Video footage of her last days in the jail shows she was extremely weak and undernourished, and she was even being denied sufficient water, the family’s lawyer, Erik Heipt, told The Washington Post.
“The only way I was able to know, for example, that [Holly] only had three small cups of water during 48 hours is because I watched all 48 hours,” Heipt said. “If you look at just the medical records provided by the company, LaSalle, you would have no idea of her blindness, inability to walk, difficulty even crawling or malnourished state.”
Neither LaSalle Corrections nor Bowie County officials would comment to the Post or the Times. LaSalle has been accused of mismanagement in several cases; Heipt filed a suit in the 2015 death of Michael Sabbie at Bi-State. Sabbie, who had high blood pressure, asthma, and other health problems, did not receive the medical care he needed, according to the suit, which was settled out of court in 2019.
LaSalle also operates the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., which is the subject of whistleblower allegations that immigrant detainees had undergone various gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies, without their informed consent.
“For years, LaSalle has been neglecting and abusing inmates, disregarding their fundamental constitutional rights and engaging in other cruel and inhumane acts and practices,” the Barlow-Austin suit says, adding that her case “goes to the very heart of everything that’s wrong with the privatization of America’s county jails.”