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Inmate Sues Prison Officials Over Erection That Lasted Five Days 

Published October 6, 2011 at 4:12 p.m.

From the files at federal court in Burlington comes this story of hard time.

A Vermont prison inmate is suing corrections officials after an adverse reaction to a  prescription medication caused an erection that lasted for five days and left him with permanent erectile dysfunction.

James Stewart, age 34 (not pictured at right), alleges that prison health officials at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport are responsible for irreparable harm by delaying medical treatment —  a "deliberate indifference" that, he says, violated his Eighth Amendment rights.

According to Stewart's lawsuit, the erection was a side effect to taking Trazodone, an antidepressant sometimes used to treat schizophrenia, which he was prescribed by prison officials. After "four to five hours" with no relief, he complained about it on October 5, 2010, to a correctional officer who in turn summoned a prison nurse. The nurse called a doctor, the lawsuit states, and after speaking with him advised Stewart that he should "lay down and relax and the ... doctor said it will subside once plaintiff just relax [sic]."

But relaxing didn't do the trick. By the next morning, Stewart was in serious pain and having problems urinating.

On the second day, the scenario allegedly repeated itself. Stewart summoned the nurse, who again called the doctor, only to return with the same advice: Lay down and relax, and it will go away.

It didn't.

By day three, October 7, Stewart alleges he was in "unbearable" pain and summoned a different correctional officer, one who was "very concerned in regards to the medical urgency of the problem I was having." The prison guard summoned a male nurse who "came to my cell to look at the problem" and immediately had Stewart transported by ambulance to the emergency room at North Country Hospital in Newport. It was diagnosed as a priapism, which the lawsuit helpfully notes is "a medical disorder in which there is persistent, often painful erection of the penis in the absence of sexual interest."

In his lawsuit, Stewart lays out a blow-by-blow account of the doctors' attempts to eradicate the erection. Doctors "made attempts at irrigation," he writes, to no avail. Later, he was transferred to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, where he says he was taken to the operating room and administered a "distal shunt procedure with Cavernosal-glanular shunt." It didn't work the first time, so doctors had to do it again.

Long story short, Stewart alleges that, with surgery, the priapism finally subsided, but not before leaving him permanently damaged and "unable to have a normal sex life." He was released from the hospital on October 11, 2011 2010 — five days after the initial occurrence.

Stewart alleges that prison officials' failure to act in those first two days caused him permanent injury. The lawsuit names as defendants five prison officials and seeks from each $150,000 in compensatory damages, $50,000 in punitive damages and $75,000 in damages for mental anguish and emotional distress — for a grand total of $1,375,000.

The National Institutes of Health website warns that Trazodone has been known to cause several serious side effects, including "painful erection that lasts longer than normal."

"Trazodone may cause painful, long-lasting erections in males," the warning reads. "In some cases emergency and/or surgical treatment has been required and, in some of these cases, permanent damage has occurred. Talk to your doctor about the risk of taking Trazodone."

Stewart is presently incarcerated out-of-state at the privately run Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky. He is bringing the lawsuit without a lawyer's help.

In a letter to Stewart attached as an exhibit to the civil lawsuit, Trudee Ettlinger, the Department of Corrections' interim health services director, wrote, "I have looked at your medical record and it appears that you received appropriate medical care for you [sic] priapism."

No word on whether the suit will stand up in court.

One or more images has been removed from this article. For further information, contact [email protected].
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Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.

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