Barred from help?

As early as Aug. 10, Michael Williams knew his breathing wasn't what it should be. He wheezed constantly, took frequent hits from an inhaler and suffered through hourlong coughing fits.

But as an inmate housed in the Orange County Jail, there wasn't much he could do about his condition. "Could you please call up here and raise some hell like before?" he wrote to his girlfriend that month.

Pleas from Williams' family and cell mates apparently were ignored. Williams died Oct. 5 after a last-ditch effort to save himself when, according to testimony from six inmates, guards failed to respond to his request for medical attention.

Williams' family is furious that the 39-year-old air-conditioning installer didn't receive better treatment. They've hired a lawyer and plan to picket the jail to raise awareness of the facility's inadequate medical treatment.

A lifelong asthmatic, Williams apparently died of an attack, according to the family's attorney, Dean Mosley. But his sister, Angela Williams, says she was told that her brother suffered from pneumonia. His lungs were so congested, he drowned in his own mucus, Angela Williams says she was told by the medical examiner's office.

"He knew something wasn't right," she says. "He saw a nurse who said they checked everything. Why weren't they checking his lungs? They were absolutely full of mucus. That didn't happen overnight."

A spokesman for the Orange County Medical Examiner Office says an official cause of Williams' death is pending. Toxicology and histology reports should be ready in another month.

Jail spokesman Allen Moore said an investigation is being conducted into Williams' death, mainly in case the county is sued. Moore is prohibited from disclosing an inmate's medical record, but denied that jail employees were slow to respond. "We acted quickly and responsibly," he says. A sheriff's office memo said a nurse responded to an emergency call to help Williams within three minutes.

Williams had a history of petty offenses for such crimes as resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer and aggravated assault. Most of his charges, however, were dropped before going to trial.

Williams was back in jail in early July on charges he helped his girlfriend's son assault another relative in what police say was a revenge beating for an earlier assault on Williams' girlfriend. Donning masks, Williams and Joseph Dockweiler allegedly entered the home of Lee James Coffee and hit him 15 times with wooden sticks while he was sleeping, according to court documents. Coffee's elderly mother, Lenore Marshall, was also allegedly struck in the head. At his arraignment in September, Williams pleaded innocent to three felonies: burglary, aggravated battery, and battery on a person 65 years or older. A trial had been set for December.

The way Williams died came to light after some of his cell mates contacted a private investigator named Frank Clay. Clay, who has worked in Florida's jails and prisons since 1985, tape recorded more than six inmates' testimony, claiming that guards ignored obvious signs that Williams was seriously ill.

Clay said the inmates were clearly shaken by Williams' death. (Orlando Weekly was prohibited from conducting its own interviews at the jail.) "Some of the guys cried like babies," says Clay, who works with the nonprofit group Mothers Against Inmate Abuse.

Correction officials typically caution against trusting inmates' testimony. But Clay defends Williams' cell mates, saying their stories are identical and that they have nothing to gain by speaking up. "The only thing they have to gain by speaking up is being punished in some off-the-wall way," Clay says.

According to the testimony, Williams missed a doctor's appointment several days before he died. Guards told him he had arrived too late to be taken for his visit, and that Williams would have to put in another request.

On the day he died, Williams' breathing became so labored that he began beating on the glass that separates a wing of the jail from a guard stand. The time was approximately 8:45 p.m. Several inmates began helping Williams beat on the glass. But corrections officers didn't respond. A jail employee identified by inmates as Officer Michael Montgomery came over the intercom and said, "The longer you beat on the window, the longer it will take for us to get him help."

"Then Montgomery and the other C.O.'s returned to their preoccupied tasks," according Anthony Hendley, one of Williams' cell mates.

The inmates' accounts contend that guards took another 10 minutes to rescue Williams. "Time continued to pass, we continued to beat, Michael continued to die right there at the glass," Hendley wrote.

Guards finally escorted Williams into one of the jail's program rooms, where he received medical treatment about 15 minutes later, according to the inmates' time frame. He was pronounced dead at 9:38 p.m.

Williams' death, the fifth at the jail this year, comes on the heels of reports that the jail's 113-member medical staff suffers from poor morale, inexperienced and incompetent nurses, and a shortage of personnel. Last February the jail's medical staff misidentified a prisoner sent to an area hospital who fell and hit his head on a toilet. The inmate, Christopher Turney, spent three days in a coma before hospital officials realized who he was. Only one nurse was on duty for more than 3,000 inmates the night Turney was sent to the hospital.

According to Williams' letter to his girlfriend, the medical care he received was equally unskillful: "I went to see the doctor but all I saw was the nurse. Not even a nurse, a pill pusher. This guy said, '[There] ain't nothing wrong with you. Drink more water.' Can you believe that shit? I put in a request to see the doctor again. Maybe next week."

Williams' problem, though, appeared to be with the guards. Angela Williams couldn't say whether her brother had bad relations with them -- whether officers were retaliating against Williams by not allowing him to see a doctor. She had little contact with Williams, known as Rooster to family and friends, since he'd been arrested July 9. "It tore me apart when he went to jail," she says. "I didn't see him or write him. I regret that now."

Dean Mosley, the attorney retained by the Williams family, says the problem is that guards are often diagnosing inmates instead of jail doctors. "What happens is that the correctional officers have a tendency to think that inmates are faking it or malingering," Mosley says. "They don't give a person the proper treatment, then something tragic occurs."

Angela Williams says her brother stayed in jail pending his trial because he couldn't afford to pay his bond. Williams' friends and family say it wouldn't have killed jail employees to make sure he was treated properly while he was there.

"All I really want is justice," Angela Williams says. "My brother died unnecessarily."