The state has agreed to pay $1.8 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a former Alaska inmate who suffered paralysis from an untreated infection, despite days of repeated pleas to prison officials for help.
Nicholas Tucker, 37, says he still suffers from partial paralysis stemming from the spinal cord infection he contracted while serving a sentence at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward in 2015.
Officials at the maximum-security prison disregarded the seriousness of his illness for days — and as a prisoner there was nothing he could do about it until it was too late, said Tucker, a former commercial fisherman, in an email Wednesday.
“Most people, myself included, end up in jail because we made mistakes,” Tucker wrote. “But once placed in jail, we are at the mercy of our caretakers.”
Tucker was released from prison in 2016. In 2017 he sued the Alaska Department of Corrections.
The case was headed toward a trial date in August. Instead, the state and Tucker finalized a settlement during the first week of June that includes the $1.8 million for Tucker’s injury plus an agreement that the state will pay $200,000 in Medicaid liens stemming from the injury, according to Anchorage attorney John Cashion.
Cashion, of the firm Cashion Gilmore, handled the case with Bethel attorney Myron Angstman.
The Department of Corrections said it would like to explain what happened, but can’t because of privacy laws.
“It is unfortunate that (federal) laws and maintaining the confidentiality of Mr. Tucker’s private medical information prevents us from fully explaining the events that transpired,” spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher wrote in an email.
"Prompt and proper medical attention was given in this matter by trained professional medical staff,” Gallagher said.
She didn’t explain why the state agreed to the nearly $2 million settlement.
The Alaska Department of Law did not respond to a request to questions about how much the state has paid out in wrongful death or injury lawsuits related to the Department of Corrections this year.
In one other case involving jail medical care that became public, the DOC agreed in April to a $400,000 wrongful death settlement for the family of Kellsie Green, a 24-year-old woman who died at the Anchorage jail in 2015 while withdrawing from heroin.
Agency spokeswoman Cori Mills also said the state couldn’t say anything else about it chose to settle the case.
“The state provided prompt medical attention,” Mills wrote in an email.
‘I need to go to the hospital’
Nicholas Tucker’s illness unfolded over six days in August 2015 at Spring Creek, the highest security prison in Alaska’s system. Spring Creek mostly houses inmates in for lengthy sentences, but also those in for shorter periods of time.
Tucker was in on a conviction for fraudulent use of an access device, he said.
Tucker first submitted a written medical care request, known as a “cop out” on Aug. 6, complaining of neck and back pain, according to copies of internal Department of Corrections documents included in the lawsuit.
He had to be taken to the medical department in a wheelchair that day.
Notes from his medical file from Aug. 7 say Tucker reported ringing in his ears, being unable to eat and “severe pain radiating from neck down back and to elbows.”
Tucker appeared “to be almost crying — slowly rocking back and forth,” medical file notes say.
For the next four days, Tucker’s condition deteriorated. Other prisoners moved him from his bed to his toilet, and took over writing the “cop outs” as he lost the ability to use his hands.
“My cellmates and other prisoners were my lifeline; they were the only ones concerned about my situation,” Tucker wrote in an email.
A “health care progress” record shows that he was seen several times by medical staff during this time and given ibuprofen and a muscle relaxant.
By Aug. 10, his pleas had become desperate.
“My symptoms keep getting worse,” a cop out from that day reads. “Now my legs are numb. I can not move my head or legs. I can not walk. I need to go to the hospital.”
On that day Tucker also tried to get the attention of the prison’s assistant superintendent.
“I really need help,” he wrote in a request for an interview with the official.
On Aug. 11, a nurse visited a distressed Tucker around 4 p.m. and found that he couldn’t move from his bunk, according to an internal DOC incident report.
Medical staff loaded him onto a backboard because he couldn’t get into a wheelchair, the memo says.
Tucker was taken to Providence Seward Medical Center, then flown to Anchorage for emergency surgery at Alaska Regional Hospital. The surgery didn’t reverse the paralysis.
Doctors later attributed Tucker’s condition to a staph infection that had taken up residence in his spinal cord, according to attorney Cashion.
‘Inmates are human beings who deserve adequate medical care’
Tucker spent a long recovery in an Anchorage hospital before he was returned to jail to finish his sentence. He was released in January 2016. He’s living in Ketchikan, where he grew up.
Almost four years later, Tucker has regained some movement, but not all. He uses a wheelchair, walker or cane to get around. From the neck down, he feels constant sensations of tingling and burning.
“My right leg is like a flop leg, or a peg to stand on,” he wrote. “It has no feeling and no strength.”
He no longer hunts or plays sports, he said. His career as a commercial fisherman is over. He fills his days with physical therapy and medical appointments.
“My daily life is devoted to attempting to regain the ability to walk without assistive devices,” he wrote.
Tucker said he understands that his own mistakes landed him in prison. But being incarcerated shouldn’t mean having a medical emergency disregarded, he said.
“I believe that this occurs on a regular basis in prisons around the state,” Tucker wrote. “It needs to stop. Inmates are human beings who deserve adequate medical care.”