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Deaths Due to Neglect in U.S. Jails Reflect Nation’s Values

While brutality and murders committed by police officers – particularly against unarmed black men – have gained increased public attention over the past few years, the deaths of people in jail due to the negligence or deliberate indifference of corrections staff rarely register even a blip on the public’s radar. Such apathy reflects poorly on our values as a nation.

“[I]t’s crucial that the lives of those behind bars be taken into account,” wrote Truthout news analyst William C. Anderson, when reporting on deaths in Alabama county jails.

The ubiquity of cameras, in both cell phones and video security systems, as well as police body cams, has helped raise awareness of police brutality and shootings. In jails, surveillance cameras, if present at all, often fail to record abuse by jailers, which tends to occurs in areas not being filmed, or the cameras “malfunction” on a questionably regular basis. Even more rare is video of sick prisoners who are neglected and left suffering within their cells. Such cases often involve prisoners who are unruly due to their malady, or intoxicated or undergoing withdrawal from drug use.

Sheneque Proctor, 18, may have fit both profiles when she was placed in Alabama’s Bessemer City Jail on November 1, 2014 after being arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Just 14 hours after arriving at the jail she was dead. Her death would have remained shrouded in secrecy were it not for a petition by the NAACP, demanding an investigation.

An autopsy concluded that Proctor died from an apparent multiple drug overdose.

“Had Proctor’s deteriorating condition been detected earlier, there is a chance that her life could have been saved,” the investigation noted. “Experts in the prevention of overdoses say that numerous treatments are available to paramedics, including the drug Naloxone to counter methadone, CPR, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, intubation, or ventilation.”

“She may have acted out, but that doesn’t mean that you refuse to help her,” Proctor’s grieving mother stated.

The January 14, 2015 death of Tony Lewis, 19, at the Montgomery County Jail in Alabama involved another possible overdose and a “great deal of negligence” by jail staff, according to attorney Julian McPhillips.

To bring the case to light, McPhillips was forced to rely on affidavits. One pre-trial detainee, Melvin Cook, said he saw Lewis ingest a “small, white brick” and then steadily decline to the point that he obviously required medical care. It took a nurse 15 to 20 minutes to respond once other prisoners started yelling for help.

A second witness, prisoner Kennedy Norman, wrote in an affidavit that he saw a guard have a physical altercation with Lewis, resulting in the guard putting a knee on Lewis’ back when he was on the floor. A nurse came to give Lewis a shot, but she discontinued care after deciding, incorrectly, that he was faking.

The death of Jim J. Wilkerson, 46, remains under investigation. He was arrested for public intoxication while in the lobby of the Decatur Morgan Hospital. When he was booked into the Decatur City Jail he was found with prescription medication pills, so a controlled substance charge was added.

Shortly after his February 4, 2015 arrest, other detainees alerted guards that Wilkerson was having trouble breathing. As first responders arrived, he went into cardiac arrest; he was returned to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

While no death by negligence or neglect in custody should be discounted, the above cases pale in comparison to the circumstances of the deaths of Deindrez Woods, Nikki Listau and Tanisha Jefferson at Alabama’s Madison County Jail.

As previously reported by PLN, they died months apart of common, treatable ailments. Wood, 19, died from a cut that turned gangrenous. Listau died of alcohol withdrawal after suffering broken bones from a fall off a top bunk. Then there was Jefferson, who died due to constipation. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.50].

“What connects them all is that all of these people were in the medical-watch area, supposedly under the care of nurses,” said attorney Hank Sherrod, who has filed civil rights actions in federal court on behalf of the decedents’ families.

Alabama is not alone in the dismal neglect of jail prisoners in need of medical care.

According to a recent report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, over the past three years Virginia’s Hampton Roads Regional Jail has seen a prisoner mortality rate nine times the rate of deaths reported in all other regional jails in the state.

Among those was the death of Henry Stewart, 60, who had been arrested for a probation violation. On August 4, 2016, following roughly three months at the jail, Stewart fell ill, reporting fainting spells, vomiting and difficulty eating and drinking. In response, guards told Stewart to wait for an appointment with the facility’s then-health services contractor, Alabama-based NaphCare. Two days later, having received no treatment, Stewart died.

Almost a year earlier, on August 19, 2015, another Hampton Roads prisoner, Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, was found dead in his cell. Mitchell, who had a history of mental illness, had been arrested for stealing $5.05 worth of candy and soda from a convenience store, including a candy bar and Little Debbie cake.

Hampton Roads jail staff confined Mitchell to a cell for more than four months, often depriving him of food and water, while failing to provide mental health care. Guards reportedly stripped him of both clothing and bedding; the walls of his cell were coated with urine and feces.

Mitchell was 6’1” and weighed around 90 pounds at the time of his death, which was due to heart failure “accompanying wasting syndrome.” He had essentially starved to death. His family filed a lawsuit against the jail and NaphCare in May 2016. See: Adams v. NaphCare, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Va.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00229-RBS-LRL.

In September 2016, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring requested an investigation by federal officials into prisoner deaths at the Hampton Roads facility.

Jail deaths due to negligent or nonexistent medical care are not confined to the southern states.

Marshal Carman, 29, was arrested and booked into the Marion County jail in Indiana in September 2014. He had reportedly attempted to steal a computer from Walmart as a gift for his son. Five days later Carman was dead, having suffered cardiac arrest.

As in so many of these cases, jail guards observed Carman in distress and did nothing to help him – repeatedly walking by his cell as he lay naked and unconscious on the floor. Eventually, guards intervened by placing Carman face-down on his cot; two hours later he was found dead. His mother has since filed a wrongful death suit.

A recent study conducted by the Huffington Post estimates that at least 815 people died in jails nationwide in the year following the July 2015 in-custody death of Sandra Bland.

Bland was found hanging in a Waller County, Texas jail cell – an apparent suicide – three days after her arrest stemming from a traffic stop. She had made statements to the booking officer indicating she had previously had suicidal thoughts. Nevertheless, no precautions were taken by jail staff. Bland’s death made national headlines, in part due to the heavy-handed and aggressive approach of the state trooper involved in the traffic stop, who was later fired.

In September 2016, Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety agreed to pay Bland’s family a total of $1.9 million to settle their wrongful death suit. The county also agreed to make policy changes at the jail in an effort to prevent future suicides, including the use of “automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks” and “an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts.”

Through their research into jail deaths nationwide, the Huffington Post investigated the timing of 623 in-custody deaths. Researchers found that at least a third had occurred within the first three days of incarceration.

The jail deaths cited in the study – which did not include hundreds more in state and federal prisons each year – are only a small reflection of the neglect and indifference experienced by the approximately 646,000 people confined in our nations’ local jails on any given day, most of whom are awaiting trial and thus presumed innocent. The abuses that we tolerate when we think no one is looking speak volumes about who we are as a society, while the numerous preventable, egregious deaths in our nation’s jails speak for themselves.

Sources: www.truth-out.org, CNN, www.al.com, WSFA 12, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.nytimes.com, www.fox59.com, Texas Tribune, www.prisonpolicy.org


 

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