County Jail Inmate Dies on Thanksgiving

Pending Coroner’s Report, Authorities Say Johnny DeWitt Suffered Medical Emergency

Johnny DeWitt, a 49-year-old inmate from Santa Maria, collapsed at about 9:30 a.m. in the county jail on Thanksgiving and died an hour later at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

DeWitt had been booked in the county jail 23 times since 1986 on various charges, according to Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover. He reportedly suffered many medical problems, and had been housed in the medical dorm since September 28, the date he was last incarcerated. Citing HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), Hoover declined to provide details of his medical condition.

Last Thursday, DeWitt became unresponsive and jail deputies immediately responded to assist him, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Fire personnel and medics responded shortly after. He was transported to the hospital and was pronounced dead at 10:27 a.m. after suffering a “medical emergency.”

In September, DeWitt was arrested by the Santa Maria Police Department for charges of violent threats, unlawful possession of ammunition, and drugs. The coroner’s report is expected to be available late next week. He is survived by a daughter who lives in Santa Maria.

DeWitt is the sixth county inmate to die in custody since 2011. In June, 52-year-old Raymond Herrera died of internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen due to cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis C, according to the coroner’s report. Last month, his daughter, Sharayah Herrera, filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking in excess of $25,000 against the Sheriff’s Department and Corizon Health, Inc., the giant correctional health care company that came under fire this year during its contract renewal process. (After a few exhaustive Board of Supervisors meetings, the county’s contract with Corizon was extended in September for 18 months, and the department was instructed to look at other providers.)

The suit alleges jail personnel failed to provide Herrera with medications, including anti-seizure medications, during his last six days. Herrera appeared to suffer a seizure after his legs started flailing and he said he could not breath; his cellmate called for help, according to the coroner’s report. Herrera resisted deputies, who handcuffed him and transported him to the hospital, where he died after life-saving measures failed, the report states.

The suit contends the Sheriff’s Department has “knowingly maintained and tolerated longstanding and systemic deficiencies in the Santa Barbara County Jail’s provision of medical treatment to inmates.” The jail has “inadequate medical staffing” and “procedures that did not provide a minimum standard of medical treatment at the jail,” the suit alleges. Hoover declined to comment on pending litigation.

Specifically, the lawsuit claims jail personnel had “substantial documentation of the decedent’s medical needs,” and that Herrera submitted multiple requests for meds. Earlier this year, Hoover told The Independent that Herrera had initially denied he was taking medication. After it was determined he was prescribed high blood pressure medication, steps were taken to get him those meds, Hoover said in July. His death, she added, was not related to high blood pressure.

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