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$400,000 Settlement in Lawsuit over Kentucky Prisoner’s Starvation Death

by Matt Clarke

In February 2020, WDRB News revealed a previously undisclosed $400,000 settlement paid by the Kentucky Department of Corrections (DOC) to the family of a state prisoner who starved to death while in segregation at the Kentucky State Penitentiary (KSP).

James Kenneth Embry,57, died of starvation and dehydration at KSP on January 13, 2014. He had served four years of a nine-year sentence for drug and assault-related charges.

Embry had asked to be placed in segregation five weeks earlier, saying he feared for his safety, according to WDRB and court records from a lawsuit his family filed in 2016. He had a long history of mental illness. Despite this, KSP medical staff from CorrectCare-Integrated Health (CC-IH) took him off his medications this request four months before he was placed in segregation.

Medical and security staff decided Embrymust owe money, and fear of the people he owed caused him to ask to be placed in segregation. When he repeatedly asked to be placed back on his mediations because he was feeling“anxious and paranoid,” they ignored his requests.

Likewise, they decided that he was just angling for change in housing when he stopped accepting meals. This was despite the fact that he told them he wanted to hurt himself, banged his head on the cell door, and said he did not have“anything to live for.”

Embry refused 35 of his last 36 meals (and many meals prior to that), yet he was not even considered to be on hunger strike because, once in a while, he would accept the tea that went with the meal. Medical personnel considered accepting tea to signal the end of hunger strike.

Medical personnel reportedly refused to provide mental health treatment. Security personnel repeatedly wrote Embry disciplinary cases for refusing (at least four consecutive) meals, twice placed him in a restraint chair, and pepper-sprayed him for scratching himself on the wrist with a plastic utensil. No one tried to help him as his psychotic state intensified.

An internal investigation by the state DOC determined that his death“occurred as the result of a systemic failure at the Kentucky State Penitentiary involving many interacting issues,” which included medical and security personnel scheduling their rounds for extremely early hours, “walking” their rounds without actually looking into the cells, placing burdensome restrictions on the request for medical services, not knowing what constituted a hunger strike, and having an unwritten policy of not starting psychiatric medications for prisoners who entered segregation off such meds.

Embry’stwo surviving sons and his daughter filed a federal civil rights action,pursuantto42U.S.C.§1983, against CC-IH, company personnel, and KSP staff, alleging violations of Embry’s civil rights and various state torts. They were represented by Tulsa, Oklahoma, attorney Daniel Smolen of Smolen Smolen & Roytman; Prospect, Kentucky attorney Gregory A.Belzley of Belzley Brathurst Attorneys; Owensboro, Kentucky attorney Bradley P.Rhoads of Rhoads & Rhoads; and Paducah, Kentucky attorney Daryl T.Dixon.

The $400,000 settlement paid by DOC was reached in March 2019 but did not become public until WDRB reported it on February 17, 2020. CC-IH reportedly also settled its part of the lawsuit, but details were not available under the state’s open records laws. The prison staff involved in the case no longer work for the DOC. One contract medical employee had his access to DOC institutions revoked. KSP currently contracts with Wellpath for prisoner health care. See: Burke v. CorrectCare-Integrated Health, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ky.), Case No. 5:15-cv-00007-TBR.


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Related legal case

Burke v. CorrectCare-Integrated Health