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$2.5 Million Settlement in North Carolina Prisoner’s Dehydration Death

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) agreed to pay $2.5 million to the family of a mentally ill prisoner who died after spending 35 days in an isolation cell.

Michael Anthony Kerr’s death in 2014 occurred during a transport from the Alexander Correctional Institution (ACI) to Central Prison. An Army veteran serving a 31-year sentence, Kerr suffered from schizoaffective disorder that went untreated for at least six months. As previously reported in PLN, Kerr died of dehydration after being left handcuffed in solitary confinement. [See: PLN, May 2015, p.60].

While in solitary, Kerr, 54, was placed on a nutraloaf diet. He initially received milk with the nutraloaf, but four days before his death the milk was ordered discontinued because he used the cartons to stop up the toilet in his cell. The only way Kerr could obtain anything to drink was by using his hands to get water at a sink, which was difficult due to his obesity – he was 5’9” and weighed about 300 pounds – and because his hands were cuffed during the last five days before he died.

Other prisoners reported that Kerr was lethargic and laid in his own waste for days while in the segregation cell. Indeed, when guards arrived to transfer him to Central Prison, they had to cut the handcuffs off because the lock was encrusted with dried feces.

After Kerr’s death, over two dozen prison employees resigned or were disciplined. Nine were fired, but several were successful in reversing their dismissals, including the acting warden at ACI. No criminal charges were filed.

In July 2015, the NCDPS agreed to a $2.5 million settlement with Kerr’s family. Of that amount, $1.5 million will be paid by insurance. While the state did not admit liability, it agreed to issue the family a letter of apology “from a high ranking official.”

In a press release, the NCDPS also stated its Division of Adult Correctional and Juvenile Justice was taking action to improve the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. The department said it had provided 1,800 employees with crisis intervention training.

One of the staff members fired in connection with Kerr’s death, Shawn Blackburn, challenged his April 2014 termination, which was upheld by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). He then appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which affirmed the decision by the ALJ on March 15, 2016. Blackburn had ordered that Kerr not receive milk with his meals, had allowed him to remain in handcuffs for five days and “failed to initiate an Incident report for a documented Code Blue Emergency” when Kerr was in segregation.

“Based on the evidence, the ALJ’s findings of fact, and the undisputed crucial facts, we conclude that petitioner’s actions of (1) allowing Mr. Kerr to remain lying on his bed in handcuffs for five days, (2) without receiving anything to drink during this time, and (3) without any attention to Mr. Kerr’s condition, was a violation of applicable rules, a breach of petitioner’s responsibility as a senior correctional officer, and contributed directly related to Mr. Kerr’s death on 12 March 2014,” the appellate court held. “The ALJ did not err by finding and concluding that [the NCDPS] had properly determined that it had just cause to terminate petitioner for grossly inefficient job performance.” See: Blackburn v. NCDPS, Court of Appeals of North Carolina, Case No. COA15-556.

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Related legal case

Blackburn v. NCDPS,