by David M. Reutter
Since 2012, at least eighteen prisoners have died at the Macomb County Jail (MCJ) in Michigan, a rate twice the national average. As a result, seven lawsuits have been filed against the jail and its private medical contractor, Correct Care Solutions. Nevertheless, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said he remained satisfied with the performance of guards and healthcare staff at the facility.
The treatment of prisoners at MCJ has been in the public eye since the July 7, 2013 death of Jennifer Myers, 37, who was serving a 30-day sentence for failure to pay child support for her three children. Myers, a heroin addict, was arrested in a sweep of parents who were behind on their child support payments--a $1,700 delinquency that subjected her to Macomb County’s “pay or stay” policy after a judge told her to pay $500 or spend a month in jail.
Myers, who first became addicted to opioids prescribed for back pain, was unable to pay. Then she became sick in jail. In the days before her death, she progressively deteriorated from sepsis resulting from a viral infection likely complicated by her hepatitis C.
“Well, she was in there 10 days, she lost 17 pounds,” said Diane Hubble, Myers’ mother. “That’s a lot of weight. That’s a lot of weight to lose. The last four or five days, she was sick and progressively got worse.”
“She was literally laying in bed cuddled up like this, not even able to move,” a witness stated. “She’s not feeling well and the nurses aren’t doing crap about it and the officers don’t give her the time of day.”
Another witness said medical staff refused even to accept Myers’ written requests for help, adding that she could “barely get out of bed. She was trying to hand them a piece of paper. [The guard] said, ‘You’re going to have to give it to a midnight staff or morning staff. I can’t do [anything] about it.”
“To leave them in jail with an infection that ultimately leads to their death, it’s just about the same as putting them to death,” said Dr. Frank McGeorge.
Eleven months later, David Stojcevski died at MCJ on June 14, 2014 while serving a 30-day sentence for failing to pay $700 in fines. He had been jailed for 17 days suffering from “acute withdrawal” from doctor-prescribed medication that he was not receiving from medical staff.
Over those 17 days, Stojcevski lost 50 pounds. His last 10 days alive were recorded on security video, which showed guards and medical staff watching him twitch and have a seizure while lying naked on his cell floor.
“I don’t know why they don’t respond,” said Stojcevski’s mother. “Do they have a heart? How do they sleep at night? Do they have kids?”
In October 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice released the findings of an FBI investigation into Stojcevski’s death, concluding that no criminal charges would be filed against jail staff.
The deaths of Myers and Stojcevski were preceded by the 2011 death of Bronislaw Kulpa, 63, in a detox unit at MCJ. Guards were attempting to take him to a medical unit for evaluation, but Kulpa resisted. When 300-pound guard John Cantea kneeled on Kulpa’s back, he then suffered a fatal heart attack.
Kulpa’s widow filed a lawsuit against the jail, but federal Judge Terrance Berg ruled there was insufficient evidence of “excessive force” to let the case go to a jury trial. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on excessive force, failure-to-intervene and deliberate indifference claims in an unpublished ruling on September 2017, allowing the lawsuit to proceed. See: Kulpa v. Cantea, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17326 (6th Cir. 2017).
Prisoner Michael Piotrowski died at MCJ in April 2015 due to an overdose, while Daniel Byrd died at the jail that November. Byrd, 42, also overdosed on prescription medication – after 23 days in custody at MCJ. His family’s $10 million lawsuit hopes to determine how he obtained the medication while incarcerated.
“Was it the guards giving it to him?” asked attorney Greg Rohl. “The medical staff couldn’t give it to him. Was it another patient? An inmate?”
Byrd died after his cellmate, who unsuccessfully tried to get guards to intervene, noticed that Byrd “was getting kookier and kookier.”
“I just want the Macomb County Jail and any other jail to give [prisoners] dignity,” said Malinda Odisho, Byrd’s sister. “Do what’s right. Change whatever is not working. Don’t let other families feel the way I do.”
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on mental health issues involving prisoners, called the number of deaths at MCJ “a lot” for a county of its population size. While he had not conducted any studies of the jail, he noted that overcrowding – which is a chronic problem at MCJ – increases the risk of prisoner deaths.
“We have very good research that crowding in jail correlates strongly with violence, rates of mental breakdown of all kinds, medical illnesses, and suicide,” he said. “All of those things rise with crowding.”
Another, non-fatal, incident at MCJ in 2016 resulted in the filing of another lawsuit. Jessica Preston was eight months pregnant when she was arrested for driving on a suspended license, her first offense. The judge set a $10,000 cash bond, but since she did not have the money she was jailed until her court date five days later.
While at MCJ, Preston went into labor. She was recorded on video asking medical staff for help because the baby was coming, but they did not believe her.
“When you have a woman who’s eight months pregnant, with regular contractions, who’s sweating, there are red flags going up all over the place,” Dr. McGeorge noted. “You need to take [that] seriously.”
After medical staff at the jail refused to provide care or send her to a hospital, Preston gave birth to her premature son, Elijha, on the floor of her cell.
“Having a baby in a dirty, nasty place is just not a good thing because it opens the risk to infections, whether it’s the baby or it’s the mother,” said McGeorge. “When the baby is born very small, there’s always a risk that there could be some difficulty breathing, maybe the baby has some kind of congenital problem, and that’s why they’re small.”
Elijha was under five pounds when born, but was reportedly healthy and doing well.
Despite lawsuits filed against MCJ and Correct Care Solutions after the above-described incidents, Sheriff Wickersham remained adamant that his staff and the jail’s medical contractor had done nothing wrong.
“We have not identified any prosecutable violations of federal criminal law; therefore, our investigation is closed,” Wickersham said about Stojcevski’s death. “Boy, would I love to comment on all the facts out there, but I can’t because there’s a civil suit.”
Wickersham made no comment regarding Myers’ death, but as to Elijha’s birth on a jail cell floor, he said he was “100 percent” satisfied with how jail and medical staff handled that incident.
Yet after the most recent deaths at MCJ – a trio of prisoners who committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells during 2017 – the sheriff announced that MCJ guards would increase cell checks, conducting one every 30 minutes. Previously, the checks occurred every 50 minutes. The jail is also sending sick prisoners to the hospital in a quicker manner.
In a July 2017 statement announcing the change in procedure, Wickersham said: “We regret to inform our community that these events have occurred and are doing everything we can to prevent future incidents.”
Better late than never, apparently.
Sources: www.detroit.cbslocal.com, www.michiganradio.org, www.clickondetroit.com, www.heraldpalladium.com
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Related legal case
Kulpa v. Cantea
|2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17326 (6th Cir. 2017)