By Brittany Hailer
For several days, Theresa Harris’ daughter refreshed VineLink, an online portal that indicates if someone is in custody at the Allegheny County Jail, trying to find out if her father was in custody. The Harris family hadn’t heard from him since he was arrested by the Duquesne Police on Sept. 16 for failing to appear for a hearing on theft charges.
“Babe, I’m going to jail,” Vinckley Harris said when he called his wife from police custody. It was the last time Theresa Harris would hear from her husband.
When she awoke on Sept. 20, Theresa Harris noticed several missed phone calls from an unknown number starting around 3 a.m. She thought to herself, “Oh he’s finally calling me.” She finished getting her kids ready for school and called the number back around 9:00 a.m.
It rang and rang.
About fifteen minutes later, the Allegheny County Jail chaplain called to inform her that her husband was dead, Theresa Harris said. He had died at a nearby hospital, but the chaplain wasn’t sure if it was Allegheny General Hospital or UPMC Mercy, nor could the chaplain provide details about the nature of the medical emergency, Theresa Harris said. Vinckley Harris was 48 years old.
“Not one person contacted me from that jail besides the chaplain,” Theresa Harris said.
It took months to get some of the details of her husband’s death and Theresa Harris still has questions. The biggest one – How did her husband undergo surgery and have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) code issued when she wasn’t even told he was in the hospital?
Those same questions are being asked by a medical ethicist, a national incarceration expert and two county council members who are on the Jail Oversight Board and who have reviewed the details of Vinckley Harris’ experience of being taken from the jail to the hospital before he was actually placed into custody.
On that September morning, after the call from the chaplain, Theresa Harris’ mind raced. What was she going to tell her children? Where was her husband’s body?
She called both hospitals, she said, but staff members who answered the phone told her: “No Vinckley Harris here.” She called the jail again and was informed that Vinckley Harris was not in the jail’s custody. Theresa Harris called the Allegheny County Medical Examiner who confirmed that her husband was dead. Vinckley Harris had been identified by county jail officials and she would not be permitted to see his body, the Medical Examiner official told her.
“How is that possible?” she asked. “They said he was never in their custody.”
Theresa Harris said she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so she drove to the medical examiner’s office where she stood outside and demanded to see her husband. Maybe there was a mix-up, she thought.
“They said, ‘We can Facetime you. All we can do is give you a headshot of his face.’ That’s how they let me see him after they did the autopsy,” Theresa Harris said.
She would later find out that her husband collapsed in the jail’s intake and he was rushed to UPMC Mercy, where he arrived unresponsive and was put on life support on September 17.
She’s been on a mission to figure out if her husband relinquished his right to make medical decisions when he was taken to the county jail, and how the jail’s medical director was able to change her husband’s status to Do Not Resuscitate while he was on life support. She’s also mourning the fact that she and her children were denied the opportunity to see her husband before he died.
UPMC Mercy officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Nor did jail officials provide answers to these questions.
“A door has been slammed in my face each way I have turned. Having answers isn’t going to make him come back, but it will give us closure,” Theresa Harris said. “We have five children and a grandson who keeps asking for him. My kids keep me going. I am their only parent now. I have to find answers. Just looking more into this— he wasn’t done right. They just assumed he was nobody. And nobody was going to care enough to pursue this. And I want them to know he was loved, very loved.”
‘How do you have any authority over him if he was never in your custody?’
Theresa Harris and her children endured the fall without knowing what caused Vinckley Harris’ death.
In January, the Allegheny Medical Examiner determined that he died from hemorrhagic shock and a ruptured spleen. The autopsy report indicated drug use as “contributory cause of death.” UPMC blood screenings indicated cocaine, opioids, benzodiazepines, methamphetamine in Vinckley Harris’ system. His manner of death was ruled an accident. Cyril Wecht, a nationally prominent pathologist, also performed an independent autopsy at the request of the Harris family’s former lawyer.
In the months following Vinckley Harris’ death, a lawyer worked with the family pro-bono, aiding in their investigation. However, after months of tracking down records, the lawyer ultimately dropped the case, leaving Theresa Harris devastated. But she couldn’t give up.
“He said we didn’t have a case. But I knew there was more to it and I wanted answers,” Theresa Harris said.
Last month, after the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism published the results of an investigation into 13 men who died after entering the jail since the onset of the pandemic, the Harris family reached out to share Vinckley Harris’ story.
Theresa Harris said she received her husband’s hospital medical records and was shocked at what she found.
The records show that the “jail warden” and the jail Medical Director Donald Stechschulte, made medical decisions for her unconscious husband, including designating him as a Do Not Resuscitate patient while he was on life support. The records did not specifically name Warden Orlando Harper.
According to the hospital records, Vinckley Harris was intubated upon admission to the hospital on September 17. The next day, doctors asked the jail warden for permission to perform surgery to deal with a medical condition related to previous surgery he had in January 2021.
That earlier surgery for a bullet wound on Vinckley Harris’ arm was performed at UPMC Mercy Hospital and Theresa Harris’ contact information was given to the health care provider at that time.
Nine months later, in September, no one from the jail or hospital contacted Theresa Harris for permission for the surgery, she said. She is listed as her husband’s emergency medical contact on UPMC patient information form dated Sept 17, 2021. It’s unclear who placed her name and contact information on the form.
“The patient was felt to be a candidate for forearm fasciotomies and therefore the procedure as well as the risks and complications were explained to the jail warden, from whom consent was obtained,” Vinckley Harris’ general surgery operative report reads.
Medical records show that after the forearm surgery, his health declined. He remained on life support, unconscious and in acute liver failure, as his body continued to internally hemorrhage, prompting the UPMC Mercy primary team to contact the medical director of Allegheny County Jail. The primary team, “discussed with him about changing the patient’s code status from full code to DNR,” according to Vinckley Harris’s UPMC death summary report.
“[Don] Stechschulte, the medical director, agreed to the change in code status and the patient was listed as DNR. Patient was pronounced dead at 1:43 in the morning on 9/20/2021,” the death summary report continues.
“What was the emergency to make him a DNR?” Theresa Harris questioned.
After Vinckley Harris was pronounced dead., “Multiple attempts were made after obtaining permission from the Allegheny County Jail to contact the family, however, family was unavailable,” his death summary report from the hospital shows.
Theresa Harris pointed out that the medical examiner, UPMC Mercy staff and the jail’s chaplain were all suddenly able to call her on September 20, hours after Vinckley Harris died.
“They knew who I was,” Theresa Harris said. “And they were able to contact me as soon as he was dead.”
And yet, Allegheny County Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse told PINJ that no emergency contact information had been obtained on Vinckley Harris at the jail. In an email, Geleynse said “Information, including emergency contact information, is obtained during processing and booking,” but because Vinckley Harris was never processed “no emergency contact information had been obtained prior to the medical incident.”
Geleynse did not respond to questions regarding how UPMC Mercy had Theresa Harris’ contact information on her husband’s September 2021 patient information form. Geleynse said jail officials worked to find a contact for Harris and attempts were made, but he would not clarify if the family was contacted by the jail before or after Vinckley Harris’ death.
“We have nothing more to add. You can contact Allegheny Health Network (the jail’s medical provider), or the hospital for your additional questions,”Geleynse wrote.
UPMC Mercy did not respond to requests for comment on how they obtained Vinckley Harris’ emergency contact information or why they did not contact Theresa Harris about her husband’s medical needs.
Geleynse also would not confirm if Vinckley Harris signed an advance directive or DNR in the jail’s intake, but Theresa Harris wonders if the jail didn’t have time to learn his emergency contact information, when would he have signed a DNR?
The jail’s advance directive policy stipulates that incarcerated persons can consider advanced directives while “they are still capable of making decisions and before the effects of illness or disease have reduced their capacity to consider the benefits, burdens, and risk of alternative treatments.”
But Theresa Harris doubts that happened.
“He never would have signed that. I know my husband,” Theresa Harris said. Among the paperwork that she’s received, there is no document that indicates that Vinckley Harris ever signed a DNR. The jail has not provided its internal medical records to Theresa Harris, which would indicate if a DNR was signed.
The jail’s advanced directive policy states that, “all paperwork related to its Advance Directive, along with contact information, shall be kept in the inmate’s medical records.”
“How do you have any authority over him if he was never in your custody?” Theresa Harris asked.
Even though jail personnel did not process or book Vinckley Harris into custody, or obtain his medical emergency information, records show the warden and medical director made medical decisions throughout this hospitalization.
That appears to violate the jail’s advanced directive policy that states at no time will an employee from the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections or the medical provider ever be permitted to be an incarcerated person’s proxy.
Theresa Harris said when her lawyer requested her husband’s medical records from the jail, he was told a subpoena was needed. The jail either denied, or failed to provide, medical records for multiple families of incarcerated individuals who have died in custody. Under Pennsylvania law, and according to the jail’s policy, executors of a decedent’s estate or, the next of kin responsible for the remains, are allowed access to all medical records of the deceased.
‘No doctor should turn to a warden for instructions’
Under federal and Pennsylvania law, when an individual can no longer give consent due to incompetence or a medical condition, next-of-kin, a designated surrogate, or a court-appointed guardian makes medical decisions for the patients. This includes end-of-life directives, DNR code changes, and removing someone from life support.
Incarcerated persons do not forfeit their medical civil rights upon incarceration, according to sources who hold the title of medical ethicists, doctors and policy makers, interviewed by PINJ.
Vinckley Harris’ case demonstrates a violation of both state and federal law, according to Gregory Dober, adjunct professor in biomedical ethics at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and health care ethics advocate at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Bioethics and Health Law.
“The law requires medical consent before an operation. Without it, medical battery can result. In this case, only Mr. Harris or his surrogate, his spouse under Pennsylvania law Act 169, can authorize his later operations for treatment. We know Mr. Harris was incapacitated so that burden falls to his wife” and not jail officials, Dober said.
Dober explained that if Vinckley Harris provided an advanced directive to the jail upon being processed in intake, the “decision-making still goes through the lineage process” like designated surrogate, next-of-kin, or a court-appointed guardian.
“If there is no next of kin, after investigation, then the decision-maker must be a court-ordered guardian under the state’s decision-making law.” Dober said. ”At least, the state [Department of Corrections] indicates that it knows that law as I requested to be a guardian for a state inmate who was dying of COVID in late 2020 without kin.”
Marc Stern, former assistant secretary for health services for the Washington State Department of Corrections, has consulted for the Department of Justice and the California Department of Corrections in health care ethics. He also contributed to the 2014 Jail and Prison Health Standards of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
Stern said not only should the jail be held accountable, but medical professionals must remember that the incarcerated still have rights.
“The short version is, you should be incensed. It is both unethical, and sounds like illegal, for the medical director or the warden to have played any role at all in determining if this person was DNR at all,” Stern said.
Jails and prisons have to consider security risks when an incarcerated person is hospitalized in a public medical center, Stern said. But often, when a prognosis is dire, emergency visitations to the hospital are ordered by the court, or a person is released from custody so that family may be permitted to see their loved one.
“Every system I know has room to make an exception, when the family should be involved. Because we’re still a society of human beings … not contacting their family, denying them the right of seeing their loved one before they die, is a lack of humanity,” Stern said.
The warden and the jail’s medical director should not have been contacted in regards to Vinckley Harris’ medical procedures or DNR status, according to Stern.
UPMC Mercy did not respond to requests for response to Stern’s comments.
“It’s shocking to me that the authorities at the hospital did this,” Stern said. “There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to the warden and asking a question. The warden might have information that is relevant and important, like security issues, for example. Or if the patient has an appointed guardian. Contacting the warden for that reason is fine. But having them make him a DNR? That’s unconscionable. No doctor should turn to a warden for instructions.”
Former Allegheny County Coroner and Medical Examiner Cyril Wecht said jail administrators have no place in a hospital room, and in an emergency situation, a doctor does not need consent from anyone to perform life-saving procedures.
“This person wasn’t even booked, he wasn’t technically a prisoner. The warden and the jail should not have had any involvement,” Wecht said. “He has no legal authorization at all because he’s a warden— it is that straightforward. The warden does not have authority, he does not have medical knowledge, and it is not for him to make that decision.”
Jail Oversight Board member and County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam expressed outrage, calling Vinckley Harris’ DNR change “abhorrent.”
She was the only JOB member to respond to requests for comment. The other JOB members are County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Abass B. Kamara, Terri Klein, Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus, Common Pleas Judge Beth Lazzara, M. Gayle Moss and JOB president and Common Pleas Judge Elliot C. Howsie.
“The jail, its administration, and the current County administration, as we know from experience, do not share interests or values with our neighbors held inside its walls, nor with their families. It is cruel, it is inhumane, and it is unacceptable,” said Hallam.
Allegheny County Council President Patrick Catena said he has more questions than answers regarding Vinckley Harris’ case. The jail “is an onion with many layers,” he said, and the warden is not one who will answer questions to the Jail Oversight Board or the public.
“I don’t understand why a jail would take that on themselves to make those decisions,” Cantena said. “I would love to know when this started happening— is this a one off? Or do they routinely do this? If this is routinely going on down there, that’s a problem. If I was incarcerated, and had a life or death situation, I certainly wouldn’t want them making a call for me.”
Theresa Harris and her children are still searching for answers, still requesting Vinckley Harris’ medical records from the jail in order to find out what happened to him when he collapsed in the jail’s intake unit.
“We have a grandson who asks about him all the time. When he plays with toys and I ask him what he’s doing he says, ‘I am trying to catch the bad man who hurt dad,’” Theresa Harris said.
“This came as a total shock. My children never got to say goodbye.”
Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.