Man sues Washington jail over lack of gluten-free food

A Michigan man says he lost about 35 pounds and was malnourished to the point of unconsciousness during a three-week stay in a Washington state jail early this year because staff failed to provide him gluten-free food to accommodate his celiac disease.

Gaven Picciano, 26, filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against the Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington, as well as NaphCare Inc., the for-profit Alabama company that provides medical services at the jail, in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Wednesday. According to one of his attorneys, Washington, D.C.-based Mary Vargas, he weighed about 200 pounds (90.7 kg) when he entered the jail Jan. 30 and 165 pounds (74.8 kg) when he left it Feb. 20.

In an email, Emily Sheldrick, chief civil deputy with the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment on the case, citing county policy. NaphCare did not immediately return an email seeking comment. Last year, the company joined a Virginia jail in agreeing to pay $3 million to the family of a mentally ill man who died after suffering severe weight loss there.

The lawsuit alleges that Picciano repeatedly asked jail staff verbally and in writing for gluten-free food. At one point, guards told him to trade the gluten-containing food he couldn’t eat with other prisoners for food that he could, like bananas. At another, they told him just not to eat anything that would make him sick.

After nine days with virtually no food, he became unresponsive, the lawsuit said, and guards tried to revive him using the opioid-overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

“Mr. Picciano had not taken drugs or overdosed,” the lawsuit said. “He had collapsed from not having food.”

He was taken to a hospital where he was diagnosed with low blood pressure, dehydration, an electrolyte imbalance and an irregular heartbeat. Doctors treated him and sent him back to the jail with orders that he be given a gluten-free diet, but still, the jail failed to do so, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accused Clark County and NaphCare of violating Picciano’s civil rights, as well as the Americans with Disability Act and state anti-discrimination law.

It’s not the first case alleging a severe outcome after a Washington jail ignored medical dietary needs. In 2012, Michael Saffioti, a 22-year-old man who had turned himself in to face a misdemeanor marijuana charge, died in the Snohomish County Jail after being fed a meal that contained dairy, despite his known, life-threatening allergy.