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Inmate: Letter warned of staph outbreak

| Tuesday, April 12, 2005

An Allegheny County Jail inmate and his lawyer told county and jail officials that the lockup had a major problem with a potentially dangerous germ months before the superbug killed two female inmates March 21.

Keith Maydak, 34, a convicted swindler with a long history of filing lawsuits against officials, sent a letter dated Dec. 9 to Dr. Bruce Dixon, head of the county health department, and to other health and jail oversight officials informing them that a staphylococcus aureus outbreak was affecting up to 15 inmates a day.

"To date, jail authorities refuse to investigate the source of the infection," Maydak wrote.

Maydak's lawyer, Peter Zahn of San Diego, wrote on Jan. 28 to jail oversight officials to warn of a high incidence of the staph infection at the Downtown lockup on Second Avenue.

Interviewed in the jail yesterday, Maydak said it is outrageous that no one addressed his concerns.

"Someone had to die for anyone to take action," said Maydak, formerly of North Versailles.

Inmates Valeriya Whetsell, 50, of Homewood, and Amy Sartori, 31, of Mt. Washington, died within hours of one another March 21 after developing breathing problems. County coroner's and health department officials initially tied the deaths to improperly mixed cleaning chemicals, but lab tests showed an increasingly common drug-resistant staph infection was to blame.

Various jail and health officials said Monday they either did not get Maydak's and Zahn's letters, did not remember them, or did not pay too much attention to Maydak's concerns because he routinely files complaints and appeared to be laying the groundwork for a lawsuit.

"He's one of these jailhouse attorneys who writes to everyone," Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin said. "He has a lot of time on his hands."

Zahn, a business lawyer who is not handling Maydak's criminal case, wrote in his letter that Maydak might sue if his various grievances were not addressed.

Zahn declined to discuss his relationship with Maydak, who has filed dozens of lawsuits in the past against businesses and government entities.

Included are one against an olive oil manufacturer he claimed didn't put as much olive oil in its containers as it claimed and one in which he won the right to be served soy milk in prison because he claimed to be a vegan, despite evidence to the contrary.

Maydak said money is not his motive for alerting county officials about jail conditions, because lawsuits against the government rarely result in payouts.

"The only thing that happens in a lawsuit is they sometimes change conditions," he said.

Maydak was convicted in 1995 of bilking AT&T out of more than $500,000 in a phony 900-number scheme. Prosecutors said Maydak had used some of the proceeds to buy screenplays for three soft-core pornographic films.

He is in jail awaiting sentencing on a parole violation.

Rustin said he remembers Maydak's concerns being brought to him about one month ago. But the warden did not take them too seriously because Maydak files a complaint about once a week with many grievances in each complaint, and because Rustin thought staph is a common, but not too serious, problem.

"There's staph everywhere you go, especially when you have a lot of people living in close quarters," Rustin said.

At the health department, Dixon said he simply does not remember any letter from Maydak, but said the letter could have been filtered out by his staff.

"It may have showed up here. I just didn't see it," Dixon said.

Health department spokesman Guillermo Cole said that Maydak's letter included several inaccuracies, including a claim that inmates are charged for health care.

"I think that might call into question his credibility," Cole said.

There are no charges for health care at the jail.

Dixon said he does not know how many staph infections have occurred at the jail, but said the recent deaths are the first fatalities.

While it is unclear whether Maydak's letter got through, his attorney's clearly did.

In a four-page list of other grievances, including allegations the jail was retaliating against Maydak, keeping his mail from him and unfairly limiting his access to copy machines, Zahn specifically alerted jail officials to "a high incidence of staphylococcus aureus" and a lack of adequate cleaning at the jail.

Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, chair of the Jail Oversight Board, wrote Zahn Feb. 7 to say she was unfamiliar with Maydak's earlier complaint but had received Zahn's letter.

"I will forward a copy of your letter to all board members and to Warden Rustin and ask him to address these matters and report to the board." Clark wrote.

Clark did not return calls seeking comment, and Rustin said he does not remember the issue coming up at a Jail Oversight Board meeting.

Staphylococcus aureus is a type of bacteria normally carried on the skin or in the nose of healthy people.

Some of these bacteria have become resistant to an antibiotic called methicillin, which is commonly used to treat staph infections.

The methicillin-resistant strain, known by the acronym MRSA, affects healthy young people in non-hospital settings, and was discovered in the past five years, said Nicole Coffin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The most affected groups include prison inmates, players of close-contact sports, intravenous drug users, military recruits and children in child care.

MRSA is spread by direct, physical contact, or through shared clothes, linens or sports equipment.

Infections are normally mild, superficial skin infections that cause boils or lesions.

In the letter that Maydak says he wrote to Dixon, county jail oversight board members, Pennsylvania Department of Health and CDC officials Dec. 9, he complained the infection was caused by a shortage of clothing given to inmates.

He wrote that it often takes weeks for inmates to get a second pair of jail-issue clothing after arrival, and inmates often get only one chance a week to wash undergarments. Laundry is often returned damp, he wrote.

Rustin said some of the problems, including a lack of clean laundry and a shortage of clothing, are being addressed to try to curb the microbe.

A third shift in the laundry room has been added, he said, and orders for new linens have been bumped up. He said jail staff is looking at buying antibacterial soap and will try to encourage or force inmates to shower and wash regularly.

He said he will ensure all inmates will have two complete sets of clothes so one can be washed, but said it is not easy to ensure that a clean pair of underwear issued to one inmate stays with that inmate.

"If a bigger, badder inmate wants it," Rustin said, "a weaker inmate is going to give it up."

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