After inmate Angela Monica Zuniga gave birth to her son, Exodus, and immediately underwent an emergency hysterectomy in early February, the intense pain from surgery never went away, family members say.
Zuniga, a mother of seven children, complained about the aches, and was only given Tylenol by jail staff at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, her sister, Sonia Zuniga said.
Then on the night of Feb. 27, the 33-year-old collapsed inside her San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department jail cell. She was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton and died the following morning.
“We are left with a lot of unanswered questions,” her sister said. “What happened is devastating. We think her death should have been preventable. This should not happen to any inmates.”
Sonia Zuniga said her sister suffered for weeks following her C-section labor on Feb. 10 and wasn’t provided with proper medical care despite her pleas for help and her physical condition. She said her family is determined to find out what happened because they have been given very little information.
The fourth child of nine siblings, Zuniga had a tough life, her sister said.
“She made mistakes in her life,” her sister said. “She didn’t always choose the right path, but she was always a genuine person.”
At the detention center, sheriff’s officials said Zuniga suffered a “medical emergency” at 10 p.m. Feb. 27. She was transported to the Colton hospital and pronounced dead at 5:41 a.m. Feb. 28 “despite life-saving measures,” the Sheriff’s Department said.
The Riverside County coroner’s office will determine a cause of death for Zuniga, which is a standard procedure for a death in San Bernardino county custody. The Sheriff’s Department’s Specialized Investigations Division has launched a probe into her death.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller said the Sheriff’s Department couldn’t comment on Zuniga’s medical condition because it would violate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations.
“When an inmate complains of illness and asks to see medical staff, they are taken to the infirmary,” she said. “If the medical staff determines they need a higher level of care they will be transported to a hospital.”
Zuniga’s death came days after the Prison Law Office filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of two inmates, alleging that conditions at the Sheriff’s Department’s jails were unconstitutional.
The lawsuit claims inmates were not provided timely access to doctors, mental health care providers and dental care. They allege the jails do not provide proper accommodations for people with disabilities. Jail staff has also used excessive force against inmates, according to the lawsuit.
“These people are entirely dependent on the jail for their healthcare and well-being -- they have no other options,” attorney Kelly Knapp said in a statement.
After the lawsuit was filed, Sheriff John McMahon said recently the county has devoted several resources to ensure the jails meet standards, even under the added pressure of jail realignment that brings “significant challenges in housing more inmates for longer periods of time than they have historically.”
“We have appreciated the willingness of the Prison Law Office to work constructively with the county on these issues, look forward to continued cooperative discussions, and are optimistic that the case can be resolved amicably,” he said in a statement.
Zuniga’s sister said she has contacted the Prison Law Office and have given them details about her death.
After Zuniga’s surgery, she was forced to sweep and mop and was placed in solitary confinement for a day when she complained of her pain, her sister said. Later, while being transported to a court hearing, she was handcuffed and chained by the waist to another inmate who got into a fight with another detainee, her sister said.
Zuniga’s family believes jail officials didn’t consider her physical condition when they chained her to the fighting inmate and it likely aggravated her wounds.
“Her pleas were basically ignored,” Zuniga’s sister said.
Thursday was bittersweet for the Zuniga family. Exodus, who is being cared for by the family, just turned a month old. At the same time, the family was preparing to bury Zuniga on Friday.
“We just want to know what happened,” Sonia Zuniga said. “We don’t want that to happen to anybody else. I don’t want my sister’s death to be in vain.”
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