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Toothache at privately run prison in Virginia leads to legal ache in federal court
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Toothache at privately run prison in Virginia leads to legal ache in federal court

Only $3 for 13 weeks

Conrad Burke had a temporary filling placed in a back tooth in January 2018, while being held at the Sussex I State Prison. Before it could be replaced with a permanent one, he was transferred to the Lawrenceville Correctional Center.

In April 2018, after arriving at Lawrenceville, the state's only privately-run prison, the temporary filling fell out. He sought help but was told in writing that the prison did not have a dentist — as was required under its contract with the state of Virginia.

For six months, he sought help as the pain grew. "It was unbearable, excruciating pain to the point where it felt like my head was about to fall off," Burke said Tuesday. "I couldn't even sleep ... eventually I would doze off but when I woke up it would still hurt. It was hurting around the clock."

Burke's lawyer, Victor Glasberg of Alexandria, and Burke's family contacted state officials attempting to win dental treatment, but nothing was done until Burke was transferred back to a state-run prison where the tooth had to be pulled that October.

Lawrenceville Correctional Center is operated by Geo Secure Services LLC, also known as Geo Corrections & Detention LLC, of Boca Raton, Fla. The company did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday, but in court pleadings admitted no wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, Glasberg filed suit in U.S. District Court against Geo and a state official on behalf of Burke, alleging cruel and unusual punishment and gross negligence. The case quickly headed to mediation, scheduled for later this month, and a settlement conference has been set by the court for Aug. 26.

"By their actions and inaction in question, defendants displayed deliberate indifference to Mr. Burke's serious dental needs, thereby causing him ongoing severe pain for almost half a year and ultimately the loss of a tooth — all so as to permit Geo to make more money by not spending it on dental services," alleges the suit.

Lawrenceville has 1,500 inmates. The GEO Group describes itself as "specializing in the design, financing, development, and operation of secure facilities, processing centers, and community reentry centers in the United States, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

"GEO is a leading provider of enhanced in-custody rehabilitation, post-release support, electronic monitoring, and community-based programs. GEO’s worldwide operations include the ownership and/or management of 126 facilities totaling approximately 94,000 beds, including projects under development, with a workforce of approximately 23,000 professionals," according to its website.

According to media accounts, it has also been sued by inmates and their families across the U.S. over health care, safety and other issues.

Documents submitted by Burke show he filed an emergency grievance at Lawrenceville on April 22, 2018, that states: "I have a filing [sic] that's come out of a tooth and I'm suffering with unbearable excruciating pain in my tooth and possible and likely infected blood ... I need to be treated by Dentist."

The written staff response: "There is no dentist on staff @ present time. However, the search for one is ongoing."

He filed another grievance the next day and was told the same thing in writing.

Burke wrote an informal complaint on April 25. On May 9, the Lawrenceville staff responded: "Please note at this time we don't have a dentist. You will be recalled to medical for evaluation and pain management ... Please submit a request to dental so that we can add you to the list once the dentist comes he will schedule you at that time."

On May 3, Glasberg's office emailed the Virginia attorney general's office about Burke's problem, which was described as "an appalling violation of his Eighth Amendment rights" against cruel and unusual punishment.

On May 10, Glasberg himself emailed an assistant attorney general: "WHAT'S WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE????? DO THEY NOT KNOW WHAT A TOOTHACHE IS?" he wrote.

"Truly, this is outrageous," wrote Glasberg.

Burke's family contacted the Virginia Department of Corrections seeking help, but on May 17, 2018, a department official sent Burke a letter stating that his complaint about his treatment "for bleeding gums" — not his toothache — "has been reviewed."

"We have determined that you are being treated appropriately," the letter stated.

On that May 21, Glasberg was told Lawrenceville had just hired a new dentist who would start work the following week.

Burke was finally seen by a dentist at Lawrenceville on July 9. The dentist prescribed antibiotics and that treatment be rescheduled as soon as possible, according to the suit and accompanying documents. Burke never received the antibiotics or any treatment while at Lawrenceville, says the suit.

In September, Burke was transferred to the state-run Pocahontas Correctional Center, where his tooth was pulled in October.

In its response to Burke's suit, Geo did not admit any wrongdoing and said that the contract speaks for itself.

The contract, according to Burke's suit, called for Geo to provide dental services in accordance with American Correctional Association standards, Virginia regulations and federal and state law, including emergency dental care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And the contract states the facility must provide "not less than one on-site full-time dentist and suitable on-site dental support personnel."

Burke is serving a total of 20 years for larceny, forgery and trespassing convictions in Halifax County. Reached by telephone Tuesday, he said, "They eventually had to pull it. I couldn't hardly eat or drink anything."

"I wouldn't wish that on nobody," he said. "I can't compare no pain I ever been in to that."

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