Broken jail healthcare system poses danger behind bars

A CBS News investigation into the deaths of jail inmates who were denied medical care that might have saved their lives found a danger behind bars. One of the nation's largest healthcare providers for county jails is fighting multiple lawsuits.

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Dante Wilson complains of chest pains on the floor of his jail cell Rock County Jail

Six months ago, 39-year-old Dante Wilson was in a Wisconsin jail for a child support violation. He complained of chest pains. The jail nurse concluded he had heartburn and gave him two Tums.

Less than an hour later, Wilson asked for help again. "Relax," was the nurse's advice. Soon after, Wilson died of a heart attack.

The nurse told a detective weeks later: "Yeah, we don't wanna drag it out, s--t happens."

The nurse was fired. She worked for Advanced Correctional Healthcare, a company serving 255 correctional facilities in 17 states.

Dante Wilson's death was not unique. We found ACH settled at least six lawsuits with families whose relatives died from preventable causes. Like Wilson, the inmates were charged with non-violent offenses.

Including Danny Ray Burden, a diabetic accused of insurance fraud. A police investigation showed he asked for insulin, but never got it and collapsed.

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Danny Ray Burden, a diabetic, asked for insulin but never got it while at Grant County jail in Kentucky Mark Burden

"He didn't deserve a death sentence at Grant County jail," said his brother, Mark Burden, a retired Kentucky state police detective.

Jail records show Burden had prescription drugs in his system and his cause of death was inconclusive -- but a later police investigation found that Burden should have been sent straight to the hospital.

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Mark Burden CBS News

Some might say inmates can't expect the best possible healthcare coverage, but Burden disagrees.

"I think that if you go to jail and you got a medical condition, like my brother was disclosing an emergency condition, you should be checked out by a physician at any hospital," he said.

What's even more troubling for Burden is that his younger brother asked for medical care, and there's a hospital just next door -- so close you can walk there in less than two minutes.

"Always protect your younger brother. If he gets into a fight at school, who's supposed to protect him? The older brother. And it's just hard to accept as a family, when you can't do that."

Six weeks before Danny Ray died, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the jail warning "unqualified staff are serving as gatekeepers to medical care." ACH would not talk to CBS News on camera, but they told us "staffing decisions are dictated by local jail administration."

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But problems with ACH medical staff extend beyond Kentucky. One nurse in Tennessee was convicted of covering up his failure to take an inmate's vital signs. The inmate died of a drug and alcohol overdose.

Another inmate in Ohio died from a bleeding ulcer where the medical examiner concluded the "need for urgent medical intervention" would have been obvious to anyone. In one Alabama jail, three wrongful death lawsuits are pending -- including one for a 19-year-old accused of shoplifting. He was found naked with gangrene in his leg.

In their promotional material, ACH claims they provide better healthcare than inmates would receive outside of jail, and at a competitive price.

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Advanced Correctional Healthcare settled at least six lawsuits with families whose relatives died from preventable causes Advanced Correctional Healthcare

They say they can save jails a lot of money, but as Burden put it: "at the expense of someone's life -- at the expense of my brother's life."

ACH lost their contract with the jail where Danny Ray Burden died. The company is still promising other jails it can save them significant amounts of money. ACH told us they ''do not hire people we believe to be dangerous or unfit for the job."

Additional reporting by Amel Guettatfi.