The family of a Mastic Beach man who died Tuesday while in the custody of the county-run jail in Riverhead blames a lack of access to medical care for what they say was his choking death.
Arthur Thomas, 22, who couldn't speak and needed the help of a tracheal tube to breathe, walked toward a correction officer seeking help but was forced to lie down before he reached the officer, said Chief Michael Sharkey of the Suffolk County sheriff's office, which runs the jail.
"He appeared to be in distress," Sharkey said.
By the time the correction officer reached Thomas to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Thomas was unconscious, Sharkey said. Thomas was taken by ambulance to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, where he was pronounced dead.
Thomas sought help around 8:30 a.m. and he was pronounced dead about an hour later, Sharkey said.
"He can't talk. When he was taking his last breath there was no way for him to call for help," said Thomas' mother, Jannie Butler, also of Mastic Beach.
A correction officer called Butler on Tuesday and told her that her son died of cardiac arrest, she said. But Thomas didn't have heart problems, she said.
An automobile accident more than a year ago left Thomas with injuries that included collapsed lungs, his mother said. Last July, doctors implanted the tracheal tube in his throat to help him breathe. He had been living with the device since. With the help of a machine, she said Thomas suctioned and cleaned the tracheal tube himself.
Thomas was arrested in April and was awaiting trial on robbery charges. Police said he robbed a man of a watch and jewelry, according to the Suffolk County district attorney's office.
In the two months that Thomas was incarcerated, his mother said he called home several times from jail to complain that correction officers refused to allow him to go see medical professionals to have his tracheal tube suctioned and cleaned.
At least four times, Butler said, she and her son's nurse had to call the jail to get him the medical care he needed.
Sharkey said Thomas was seen "frequently" by the jail's medical staff.
Grace McGovern, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County department of health, which provides medical care to inmates at the jail, declined to discuss any aspects of Thomas' death, citing privacy laws.
As is routine, the state Commission of Correction and the jail's criminal investigations bureau are looking into Thomas' death.
Meanwhile, the family retained an attorney Wednesday as they said they would wait for the results of the autopsy by the Suffolk County medical examiner's office to determine Thomas' cause of death. There have been three suicides reported at the county-run jails since 2008, according to the Commission of Correction.