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Deaths in Florida and Virginia Jails Spark National Investigations

The badly bloated body of Kathy Kearns was removed from her Virginia Beach jail cell in the early morning hours of April 26, 2001. Testimony from witnesses and evidence from jail and city records show that Kearns desperately tried to get medical attention for six hours just before she died. An emergency call was placed at 4:42 a.m. and an ambulance arrived at the jail in less than 15 minutes. But by the time help arrived on the scene Kathy Kearns was dead, her stomach swollen to unnatural proportions. Details of the case were revealed only after the Virginian-Pilot newspaper invoked the Freedom of Information Act. Amnesty International and the F.B.I are now investigating the case.

Kearns had been serving a 14-month sentence in the Virginia Beach city jail for drunken driving when she was diagnosed with an umbilical hernia four months prior to her death. She was also under medical treatment for hepatitis C and advanced liver disease. After being diagnosed with the hernia, Kearns gained over 80 pounds in less than three months. In spite of a surgeon's determination that Kearns was in need of outpatient surgery and repeated complaints of intense and persistent pain, the severity of Kearns' condition managed to go undetected and untreated.

Paula Miller, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach jail, insists that Kearns would have received treatment if anyone had known. But Kristi Potts, Kearns' cellmate, became so alarmed at the deteriorating condition of the dying woman that at 10 p.m. on April 25th, she placed a phone call to Kearns' family. As well as concern for her cellmate's health, Potts also complained of being repeatedly ignored by guards, said Frances Stonum, a friend of the family who took the call. Miller defended the guards saying that by law they are not allowed to know a prisoner's medical condition.

In the meantime, F.B.I. officials are investigating to determine if criminal prosecution is warranted. Alistair Hodgett of Amnesty International says that the investigation into Kearns' death will become part of an ongoing investigation into how the medical conditions of prisoners are handled in Virginia jails and in jails across the nation. Hopefully those investigations will quickly extend to Florida where two women have died from neglect on the part of guards in the Orange County jail in Orlando.

On May 30, 2001, while awaiting a ride to the jail, Karen Johnson suspected her life was about to end. Tragically, her fears were correct. Three days later she was in a coma. On June 7th she died.

Johnson was not a psychic. She was not terminally ill. She was an addict on a methadone program, and like others who have experienced the left side of the law in Orange County, Johnson knew that in jail she would not get the treatment she needed to survive.

Johnson was being transferred to Orange County Jail from Sand Lake Hospital where she had been recovering from an overdose of tranquilizers. She had been sentenced to home confinement for shoplifting but was being sent to jail for leaving the scene of an auto accident. She told jail guard Linda Austin that "everything had gotten too much" for her.

Records confirm that originally doctors from Sand Lake hospital had ordered that Johnson be placed in an inpatient psychiatric unit where she could be monitored, stabilized, and continue her methadone treatment. According to Diana Mendez, health-services manager for the jail, both she and her staff were aware of the doctor's orders. She blames the lapse on the shortage of detoxification and psychiatric facilities.

Johnson pleaded with her captors to continue her treatment. She told them that her insurance would pay for the methadone. She offered to pay the cost with money from her account; but her pleas fell on deaf ears. In desperation Johnson asked Austin if she was going to be allowed to die in jail like the other prisoner. Austin knew the reason for Johnson's anxiety; she was referring to Susan Bennett who died in 1997 from complications stemming from methadone withdrawal while being held prisoner in the same Orange County facility. Bennett suffered for 12 days before she died. She was eventually found naked, lying in her own excrement. The negligence that caused Bennett's death resulted in a $3 million dollar settlement by Orange County, a cost that eventually fell to the taxpayers since the County is self-insured. Austin assured Johnson that she would be taken care of by the medical department. It was an empty promise.

Like Bennett, Johnson also suffered for days. She had been in the methadone recovery program for five months. When the last of the medication had left her system, her suffering became obvious to everyone around her. On Saturday, June 2nd, three days after her arrival, those living with her watched in horror and frustration as Johnson exhibited all the classic symptoms of methadone withdrawal. Hour after agonizing hour, Johnson suffered from diarrhea, cramps, and chills. She was seen by a nurse but was returned to her cell without being treated. Late that afternoon Johnson was found unconscious, the result of a seizure. Only then did jail authorities take any action. She was taken to the hospital and placed on life support, but when the machines were turned off five days later, Johnson joined Bennett as another needless fatality resulting from the negligence of the Orange County Jail. According to Dr. William Anderson, deputy chief medical examiner for the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office, Johnson died from a seizure that deprived her body of oxygen for a "prolonged" period of time.

The Orange County Jail has no policy for administering methadone. However, their policy does require close observation of prisoners who have been on a methadone treatment program for signs of withdrawal. While the issue was never addressed, one can presume that policy also requires jail medical personnel to closely monitor potential suicide risks.

Given that Johnson fell into both of these categories the question arises: why was her condition only being observed by her fellow prisoners? Johnson shared a cell with 14 other women, many of who requested help for Johnson during the hours before she died. Despite these pleas her condition was ignoredat a time when she should have been most closely watched.

According to Cheryl Ann Chartier, a former nurse's aide who was one of Johnson's cellmates, "The only reason [the guards] entered the cell was they heard the screaming and the freaking. She was gurgling something. It sounded like, `Help me.'...But it was too late." "She should have been taken to the hospital," lamented Chartier.

The Johnson case has been so controversial that on July 6th, 2001, the administration broke another jail policy and allowed a prisoner who had been living with her to be interviewed. Public Safety Director Tom Hurlburt allowed an interview with Cynthia Jones who was still incarcerated at the time. "We kept telling the [guards] `She's sick! She's sick!" said Jones. "She's coming off methadone or something." Jones said she had told guards that Johnson was unable to get up. And it was Jones and another prisoner who made the gruesome discovery: Johnson's prone figure convulsing unnaturally backward, her hands clutching her own throat in a desperate attempt to breathe. Jones screamed, "We got a seizure," as the other women cried out in distress and helplessness.

Jones described the agonizing moments as she watched the clock record the last seconds of Johnson's life. According to Jones, her own father had died from asphyxiation before her eyes just as Johnson was doing. She watched as the nurse arrived and raised Johnson's wrist to check for a pulse. She watched as that same wrist fell limp and lifeless when the nurse let it go. She remembers the words of the nurse just before she and the other prisoners were forced to leave the cell. "She's gone under!" the nurse said. That was the last time she saw Karen Johnson.

Within minutes after her body was removed from the cell all evidence that Johnson had lived there was gone. The last days of her life were packed into a large garbage bag and taken away. In the days that followed, guards told the ladies that Johnson was fine. But Jones wasn't fooled. After obtaining the number from another prisoner, Jones called Johnson's mother Catherine Hirsch. "She died," said Hirsch. Then, fearing Jones would face retaliation, Hirsch ended the communication.

But Jones would not be silenced. Thanks to her interview, lawyers for the Johnson family have been armed with the alarming details of July 2 that may otherwise have never been known, details that could not be put in a garbage bag.

Catherine Hirsch, accused the county of murder: "I don't care how they put it, they murdered her," she said. "If she would have gotten help, she would still be alive today." County Chairman Rich Crotty says that a task force has been assembled to investigate Johnson's death and prevent similar occurrences in the future. Some feel the gesture is too little, too late.

Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union is appalled at Johnson's death. Referring to the deaths of Bennett and Johnson she said, "What would be more clear than having the tragedy of a person's death? I would predict many jury members would be worried by the repetitive nature of this conduct."

Rusty Johnson, Karen's ex-husband, said that his former wife knew of the jail's reputation. "She knew she wouldn't get methadone," he said. He spoke of how terrifying it must have been to know "what was coming and not being able to do anything about it."

An editorial in the Orlando Sentinel applauds Crotty's decision to place the medical section of the jail under county supervision, in particular that Crotty made the decision before a jail oversight commission was convened to take action. But in a realistic observation by Karen Johnson's husband, "They didn't want to do anything back then. I guess it took another life to think maybe they had a problem there."

The editorial does make one promising observation, however: While prisoner health care may not be a popular subject with taxpayers, those same taxpayers need to remember that when the system decides to curtail someone's freedom, they have also decided to accept the responsibility for that person's medical care. They need to realize that many medical problems like communicable diseases, if left untreated, will find their way into the community at large. But most importantly, they need to acknowledge that a garbage bag is not an acceptable solution.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch and Orlando Sentinel

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