Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Another Death in a Wisconsin Prison

"Unremarkable." That's what prison nurse Jolinda Waterman called Donnie Powe's condition when she relegated him to an observation cell. Guards perfunctorily recorded his declining health right up until he died, face down on the floor of his 6 by 8 foot tomb in Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF) aka Supermax.

For twenty-one hours guards literally watched Powe die slowly inside his Supermax prison cell. Powe had complained of weakness and vomiting, telling a prison nurse he thought he had the flu. The nurse put Powe on a clear liquid diet and told him to contact medical later if he didn't feel better. This is where the record of his slow, agonizing death begins.

March 15, 2003, 12:45pm A prison sergeant calls nurse Waterman to Powe's cell. Powe is "only mumbly when spoken to," says the sergeant. Powe's mattress is on the floor, he is "unable to, move (his)" legs and his speech is "slow and softly spoken."

Unable to walk and barely able to lift his head, Powe is placed in a "restraint chair" and taken to the infirmary. Waterman diagnoses Powe's symptoms as "unremarkable." She leaves him on a liquid diet and gives him a laxative. Powe is placed on observation for twenty-four hours and told to contact medical "if symptoms persist."

1:30pm Powe, 6"1', 227 lbs is again placed in a restraint chair and taken to an observation cell where he immediately collapses on a cot. Prison guards are charged with the duty to observe Powe every fifteen minutes. The guard's notes serve as "medical observations" because from March 15, 11:00 pm to March 16, 6:30 am - WSPF had no on-site medical staff. Budget problems are cited as the reason for the absence of medical personnel.

March 16, 8:00am When she returns to work Waterman observes Powe, through a cell window and notes that he is "rolling from side to side. No verbalizations. Moaning." Waterman calls Powe's name three times. Powe only moans in response. Waterman records that Powe is breathing and tells a sergeant that she will return when Powe is "up or tolerating conversation." Powe is offered another laxative.

9:30am Waterman returns and again observes Powe through the window. Powe is now on the floor, half-dressed. Again Waterman skips the physical exam and simply notes that Powe is breathing. She instructs the unit sergeant to have Powe brought to medical after lunch.

11:30am A guard tries to awaken Powe by kicking the door and yelling. Powe is unresponsive, his face to the-floor, incontinent with urine and drool hanging from his mouth. At least one of his extremities has already begun to turn "bluish-purple." The guard opens the door.

"I order Powe not to move and do not resist," the guard said in his report. An unconscious Powe is then handcuffed behind his back and his legs are shackled and double-locked.

11:47 AM Powe has no vital signs. Waterman tries to resuscitate him and fails. Powe is taken to the Boscobel Area Health Care Center.

12:24 PM Powe is declared dead.

Powe was serving ten years for reckless homicide in a drug deal gone bad. He was originally sent to Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution. However, after an altercation in which Powe was accused of shouting derogatory comments and allegedly shoving a sergeant, he was transferred to the Boscobel Supermax unit.

WSPF is a 500-man unit which currently houses just over 400 prisoners. The supermax prison embodies the state's newest philosophy which advocates extreme isolation as a way to modify behavior in disruptive prisoners. Men are confined to their cells for twenty-three hours a day with minimal privileges or outside contact.

Powe's death will likely be investigated by the Committee on Inmate Youth Death, an organization created to review prisoner fatalities in Milwaukee's adult and juvenile prisons. The Committee was created as a result of an expose by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled Wisconsin's Death Penalty. The Wisconsin DOC has been the subject of "dozens of deaths under questionable circumstances," said the Journal. (See PLN Feb. 2001).

Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee) expressed concern about the circumstances surrounding Powe's death. It "appears to be neglect," he said. But "I don't know if it was benign neglect or malignant neglect."

Wasserman was also concerned about official responses which said that Powe was under close medical observation and being checked every fifteen minutes.

"That's not exactly the full case," Wasserman said. "They weren't prison medical staff."

An example of Wasserman's point is found in the guards log of March 16, 6:28am. A prison guard writes that Powe "verbally refused breakfast." However, at 11:15 am when Powe was approached with lunch and "moaned in response" the guard interpreted the moan as, Powe- "refused meal."

Wasserman, who is also a physician, is a proponent of an external review process for investigating prison deaths. He refers to the current policy of internally reviewing prisoner fatalities as "the foxes protecting other foxes." A bill proposed during the 2001-2002 legislative session would have implemented an independent review process but it died in committee when it was opposed by the DOC. But Wasserman is adamant that "the public wants a real review."

Warden Gerald Berge insists that Powe had proper medical care and reacted defensively, to accusations of medical negligence in Powe's death.

"It's a difficult thing for the staff to deal with," Berge said. "The staff tried hard to resuscitate this guy. "Dr. Burnett recommends that we look at medical observation policies and procedures." But, he added, "How changes in that procedure will work out is speculative at this moment."

David Burnett, medical director for Milwaukee DOC said, "I know we have to make some changes in light of what has happened here. I understand that people are outraged and upset. We're taking action."

Rep. Wasserman especially took issue with, the fact that no medical staff was even on the unit while Powe lay suffering. "The guards aren't medically trained. What are they looking for?"

Warden Berge insisted that the absence of medical staff was not the result of budget problems. According to Berge the Supermax prison had originally been-under contract with Prison Health Services (PHS), a private vendor which supplies its own doctors and nurses. Late in 2002 PHS decided to "opt out of their contract" because they were not making enough money. This left WSPF short-handed. When the prison requested replacements from the "position authority" it was not authorized as many replacement positions as it originally had under PHS.

"We're still trying to fill one nursing position," Berge said. "When that position is filled we will have 24/7 nursing coverage."

This isn't much consolation to Powe or his family. Powe's sister, Ellory, a nurse, put it this way. "Even though he did the things that he did, he was not sentenced to die ... He couldn't speak. He couldn't call out for help. My family is devastated. He wasn't sentenced to death. It's just really hard."

Rep. Wasserman agrees. Speaking of Powe he says: "He's lying on the floor half naked. He's unresponsive. He's not eating. Doesn't that send off some type of red flags?"

Preliminary indications lead Dr. Burnett to conclude that Powe most likely died of cardiac arrest. An autopsy revealed coronary atherosclerosis, a thickening of the arteries, in eighty percent of the main artery of the left ventricle in Powe's heart.

According to the DOC summary, "The scarring in the heart indicates that he (Powe) may have had silent, small heart attacks: unbeknownst or diagnosed previously. At this point, prior to the toxicology report, it appears that this man sustained a sudden cardiac death ... The presentation of a flu-like illness may have been a contributing factor that weakened him."

Warden Berge down-played the incident by asking the question, "What difference would it have made if a night nurse would have been here (that Saturday night)? ... Would another nursing assessment have made a difference? ...People think all kinds of things about these places. They think correctional officers in particular don't care about those they are charged with. That's not true. The last thing you want to have happen on your watch is something serious."

It's a pretty safe bet that it's the last thing Donnie Powe wanted too.

Sources: The Boscobel Dial, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login