The Secret World of Missouri DOC Internal Death Investigations
by Kevin Bliss
The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) has been accused of not being transparent or competent when it comes to conducting investigations into deaths that occur in state prisons. The DOC is responsible for the care and treatment of numerous dangerous and mentally ill prisoners, yet death reviews are handled internally. The release of information is carefully controlled; even the names of staff members involved do not have to be released. Nor does video footage taken within the prison system.
“It’s a secret world,” observed Jim Bruce, a Missouri civil rights attorney. “Only the people who are in charge have control of the records.”
Around 100 Missouri state prisoners die each year, mainly due to natural causes. But some deaths result from acts of violence, such as the 2013 case of Jose Benitez, who was fatally assaulted by fellow prisoner Terry Volner.
Volner was serving life without parole for killing a child in 2011. After murdering Benitez, he received a second term of life without parole. Other deaths were the result of actions taken by prison staff, such as an incident involving prisoner Michael Lorenzo King at the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC).
King, 25, was being held in ERDCC’s administrative segregation unit. He had a history of mental health problems. On March 23, 2011, medical staff reported that King was in an unusually aggravated state; for hours he was crying, trembling, making incoherent statements and trying to hurt himself. Prison officials decided to move him to a mental health unit.
The “goon squad” – a team of black-clad tactical guards – was called to move King due to his violent state. He was extracted and placed in a padded cell, where a nurse noticed that he was unresponsive. Efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
An internal investigation ensued, but the results were not initially shared with King’s family. When the report was finally released, entire sections were blacked out to “protect security, personnel, and medical information that can’t be disclosed.” It didn’t even explain the bruises found on King’s body.
The cause of death was cited as excited delirium syndrome, a condition associated with people who are in a state of acute psychosis while being restrained. Some critics believe it’s simply a term used to justify excessive use of force. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.10].
The DOC’s internal investigation found the force used against King was justified, but five policies unrelated to his death had been violated during the incident. According to DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann, the guard who led the extraction team into King’s cell, Scott McFarland, was fired while other employees were disciplined.
The only person involved in DOC internal death investigations who does not work for the prison system is the county coroner. St. Frances County Coroner James Coplin remembered a 2008 case in which a prisoner’s neck was cut almost in half. The victim, 47-year-old Michael James Jerden, had tattoos indicating he belonged to a white prison gang; he was found dead in a cell block that was “likely being run by a black gang.”
Coplin said the crime scene wasn’t properly handled and the weapon was never found. Forensic pathologist Jane Turner, who used to conduct prison autopsies, said suicide seemed to be a more likely cause of death than homicide; nearly a decade later, the manner of Jerden’s death remains undetermined. His sister, Felicia, believes the DOC left her in the dark and didn’t conduct an adequate investigation.
“They didn’t do their job,” she stated.
Facing criticism for its internal investigations, in mid-2017 the DOC said it had reached agreements with local law enforcement agencies and the Missouri Highway Patrol to assist in investigations where foul play is suspected. Yet when questioned, Bonne Terre Chief of Police Douglas Calvert said he hadn’t been asked to help in investigations concerning the state prison located in his jurisdiction.
“Most of the institutions take care of their own problem,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – a practice that leaves the public, and prisoners’ families, largely in the dark when prisoners die.
Sources: www.stltoday.com, Associated Press