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Negligence not Grounds for Prosecution in Deaths of Wisconsin Prisoners

It was a Thursday in late July 2009 when Myron Weston, a prisoner at Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), drank cleaning fluid from the supplies given to him to perform his janitorial duties. A short time later he was so sick he couldn’t get out of bed. By Friday he had managed to move his mattress to the floor where he lay, drenched in sweat, in front of a fan. On Saturday, when guards realized Weston had vomited on himself they gave him a clean mattress but never sent for medical attention. On Sunday, when Weston collapsed after trying to stand, guards finally called an ambulance. It was too late. Weston died a short time later.

Weston had told his captors several months earlier that he had previously tried to commit suicide by ingesting dangerous chemicals and taking pills. But no one ever considered the consequences of giving him a janitorial job with the very chemicals he needed to kill himself.

Department of Corrections (DOC) spokeswoman Joy Staab blames the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which she says prevents the sharing of prisoners’ health information for purposes of confidentiality.

“HIPAA prevents many DOC employees from knowing an inmate’s medical history,” said Staab.

But attorney and retired law professor Fred Cohen doesn’t buy the excuse. “That is as bad as anything I’ve ever heard. Not only did they know he was suicidal, they know how he did it, and they gave him the very agent that he’s used to try to commit suicide. That sounds criminal.”

In 1981 the Milwaukee legislature passed the Lacy law which makes it a misdemeanor when an officer maintaining custody of a prisoner fails to render necessary aid.  In thirty years the law has never been used. The law was named for Ernest Lacy who died in police custody after he was beaten and arrested for a rape he did not commit.

The reason for the absence of prosecutions is “Because the individuals died of natural causes or suicide, and there was no reason to believe that law enforcement officers contributed to the deaths,” said Deputy District Attorney James J. Martin.

Like his predecessors John Chisolm, Milwaukee County’s head prosecutor since 2007, has never charged a correctional guard in connection with a prisoner’s death. Chisolm declined to comment for the record but one of his assistants issued this statement.

“The primary concern with an in-custody death investigation is threefold: first, was a prisoner exposed to excessive and unjustified force by law enforcement, second was there abuse by fellow prisoners and finally did the conditions of confinement contribute to the death in an unlawful manner. In our experience the vast majority of in-custody deaths relate to pre-existing medical conditions, ingestion of dangerous substances, suicide and natural cause. Because there is rarely evidence of physical trauma that is identified as the primary cause of death, we rely heavily on the determination of death by the medical examiner,” said Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern.

But Cohen says none of this reasoning holds water. According to Cohen prosecutors are focusing on the manner of death when the question they should be asking is “was this death preventable.”

In response to a report by an internal investigator who concluded that Weston’s suicide was the result of a recent break-up with his girlfriend Cohen called the breakup “…just a trigger on a gun you shouldn’t have put in his hands.”

Between 2008 and 2012, eighteen prisoner deaths in Milwaukee County, including Weston’s, have been classified either suicide or death by natural causes meaning that no one was ever held responsible for those deaths. In many of those cases the circumstances were never even evaluated by the prosecutor’s office.

When Derek Williams died of asphyxiation in the back of a patrol car in June 2009 the medical examiner originally ruled his death as a sickle cell crisis even though Williams was visible on camera pleading for help and gasping for breath for over eight minutes. Only after an independent investigation by local media did the coroner change the cause of death to homicide.

Still, the coroner’s change was not enough to compel prosecutors to charge anyone for negligence in Williams’ death. Neither has Weston’s death has caused anyone to change the way prisoners at MSDF are assigned jobs.

Source: Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

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