Questions surround 2 inmates' deaths at Burlington County Jail

"He didn't deserve to die. And I think it's disgusting," Jasmine Rodriguez (right) said of her fiancé Jerome Iozzia, pictured with their son, Nico.
"He didn't deserve to die. And I think it's disgusting," Jasmine Rodriguez (right) said of her fiancé Jerome Iozzia, pictured with their son, Nico.
Posted: March 18, 2014

MOUNT HOLLY The elderly man with the salt-and-pepper beard lay on the concrete floor of his jail cell naked and covered in his own feces.

In another cell, a father with cardiac problems feared for his health, repeatedly telling his fiancée no one had taken him to hospital appointments to check his pacemaker.

Both men, incarcerated at the same time, eventually died in the Burlington County Jail. "Natural causes," the medical examiner ruled in the Dec. 30 death of Robert Taylor, 75, and the Feb. 25 death of Jerome Iozzia, 50. "Unfortunate," the county Prosecutor's Office called Taylor's death in response to a query from Amnesty International. Investigations by the Prosecutor's Office, required in inmate deaths, found no evidence of neglect or wrongdoing by correctional officers.

But the cases of Taylor, a homeless man, and Iozzia, a Browns Mills resident who battled heroin addiction, raise questions about the actions of correctional officers and others responsible for inmate health and safety. Iozzia's fiancée and an inmate who was in segregation with Taylor and Iozzia have alleged neglect and a cover-up, calling the deaths "disgusting."

County officials have grown increasingly heated in their response to the allegations, saying their investigations proved jail officials did everything they could for both men.

Two deaths in two months at the jail is unusual; in the last five years, only three other county inmates died in custody.

"I'm a spiritual man," warden Lawrence Artis said in an interview Friday about the most recent deaths. "I believe God made those decisions. Not wardens."

Segregated for his safety

Robert Taylor was well-known around the Burlington County Jail, where his burly, hunched-over appearance and thick beard earned him the nickname "Drunk Santa Claus" from inmates. He went to the jail four times in 2013, most recently for missing a Dec. 17 court date for allegedly defecating in a Riverside laundry.

Jail officials on Friday said that they initially placed him in a wing with other inmates, but that his refusal to shower made him a potential security threat to inmates who disliked his habits. The jail placed him in segregation, citing concern for his safety.

In his last stay in segregation between Dec. 26 and 30, Taylor often slept on the floor, where he urinated and defecated.

Sean Turzanski, 29, a former inmate who was also in segregation at the time, said a foul odor flowed through the five-cell unit.

"The man needed to go to a hospital," Turzanski said in an interview after he was released on shoplifting charges. An account of the conditions he alleged was published online. "The smell was horrendous," he said.

Artis said Friday several inmates scrubbed Taylor's cell on Dec. 29 as he showered, which inmates usually do every three days.

Around noon on Dec. 30, a clinical psychiatrist called to Taylor from outside his cell for several minutes but heard no response. The psychiatrist reported Taylor was naked on the bed and in a deep sleep, but he did not enter the cell, according to the Prosecutor's Office. Instead, he went on to other inmates.

Correctional officers looked through the four-inch-wide window in Taylor's door every 15 minutes, as required, but did not enter the cell, county officials said Friday.

Around 3 p.m., a correctional officer noted Taylor was awake. It remains unclear how he determined that; the warden and an assistant prosecutor were unable to answer that question Friday.

Around 4:30 p.m., a sergeant and correctional officer entered Taylor's cell, which is required any time the sergeant visits the segregation unit. Taylor was found dead, the cause later listed aschronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Artis said correctional officers cannot enter cells alone and that it's unusual to go inside, except in an emergency.

The correctional officers' actions did not indicate neglect but raise questions of whether they could have done more, said John Paitakes, a professor of criminal justice at Seton Hall University. Much decision-making lies with the discretion of the correctional officers.

"You can do the basic thing," Paitakes said. "Or you can go above and beyond."

County officials said the officers did their jobs properly. "There was nothing more that could have been done, given the circumstances," said Paul Drayton, Burlington County administrator.

It remains unclear how long Taylor was dead. County officials would not say Friday, other than to cite the correctional officer's report that Taylor was awake at 3 p.m. His body, meanwhile, has yet to be claimed.

Scheduled follow-ups

Jerome "Jerry" Iozzia fretted in the Burlington County Jail that he wouldn't last much longer.

He had a pacemaker installed on Nov. 18 at Deborah Heart and Lung Center after a Nov. 15 squabble in which a police officer pulled him down from a chain-link fence.

Return appointments at Deborah were scheduled for Dec. 17 and Feb. 17.

Iozzia's fiancée, Jasmine Rodriguez, 37, provided letters from him insisting he never made it to his appointments.

In one written Dec. 30, Iozzia told Rodriguez jail officials "are not takin care of my heart. Got my meds all messed up. And still no follow-up visit to adjust my pacemaker."

Typically, inmates can remind jail officials of a doctor's appointment by filling out a slip and handing it to a nurse. The nurses, employed by CFG Health Systems, a private group that handles health care at the jail, usually visit three times a day.

From there, the appointment would be confirmed, and jail officials would schedule transportation.

Rodriguez, citing Iozzia's letters, said he wrote two slips about his doctor's appointments but was never transported.

Last week, Eric Arpert, a spokesman for the Burlington County freeholders, said Iozzia was never taken to the hospital after arriving at the jail Nov. 19.

But Friday, while speaking to The Inquirer with the warden, an assistant prosecutor, and the county administrator, Arpert denied saying that.

Les Paschall, CEO of CFG Health Systems, said Friday he could not comment on Iozzia's case, citing patient confidentiality. County officials say the agency is conducting its own investigation into Iozzia's medical issues.

Iozzia, county officials said, had been to the jail clinic multiple times.

On Feb. 24, more than three months after Iozzia's arrival, a guard noticed him shaking in his cell and took him to the clinic. Later that day, an officer saw him having difficulty walking. Iozzia, who had been returned to the general prison population, was taken to the clinic again.

The next day, Iozzia collapsed while brushing his teeth in the clinic.

He was taken to Virtua Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Iozzia's death certificate, provided by his fiancée, states he died of "pneumonia/empyema/sepsis." Empyema is usually caused by a lung infection and leads to a buildup of pus; sepsis is a blood infection. Both can develop from pneumonia.

Rodriguez is now left alone to raise their son, Nico, 11.

"He didn't deserve to die," she said from her home, where photos of a smiling Iozzia and Nico don the fridge. "And I think it's disgusting."

Rodriguez hopes to learn more about Iozzia's treatment at the jail. She said she planned to write a complaint to the U.S. Attorney General's Office.

856-779-3829 @borenmc

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