by Jayson Hawkins
The deaths of young Black men at the hands of police have drawn increasing scrutiny in the media and among the political chattering class, but less attention has been given to another type of criminal justice death—that of a juvenile while in custody.
Robert Wright was only 17 when he was found dead in his cell at Ohio’s Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility on August 31, 2020. While his death has drawn some attention at the state level, the overall response, including a criminal investigation by the state highway patrol, has so far been “underwhelming,” said Al Gerhardstein, an attorney for Wright’s family.
Wright was serving a sentence for sexual battery when he was discovered dead, apparently from a combination of methamphetamine intoxication and congenital heart disease, according to an autopsy report released in January 2021. The level of amphetamines in his blood was 28 ng/ml, which a forensic pathologist noted was “a very low result for amphetamine; concentrations in overdose cases range from 500 ng/ml to 41,000 ng/ml.”
An “oily” substance found on the cell toilet turned out to be MDMA—also known as “ecstasy”—but none of the drug was in Wright’s system at the time of his autopsy. The findings point toward heart disease as the cause of death. Wright had told his mother in a phone call that he had been experiencing chest pains and was waiting to see medical staff.
Two investigations, one completed by the highway patrol in March 2021 and another internal probe that the state Department of Youth Services (DYS) wrapped up the following July, failed to determine how Wright got any amphetamines. The facility was under COVID-19 protocols that barred visitors as well as most mail at the time of Wright’s death.
At least three guards at the facility have been charged with smuggling contraband or drugs inside, though none of them has been directly connected to Wright’s case.
However, the investigative reports concluded that several guards were derelict in their duties the night of Wright’s death, either asleep on the job, using their cell phones, or not at their posts. Six guards were disciplined, DYS said, but none was criminally charged.
DYS Director Ryan Gies also removed the lockup’s medical director in April 2021, canceling the contract with another doctor there as well. Gies also add newly created positions for a DYS chief of health care services and a quality improvement manager. A new nurse has also been brought on to augment existing medical staff at all three of the state’s juvenile correctional facilities.
Wright’s mother, Consandra, expressed frustration with a system that seems constructed to skirt responsibility. “There are things expected by me as a mother because he was in the system,” she said. “There are rules I have to follow. Why are they allowed to get away with a life being last under their care?”
Sources: Cincinnati Enquirer, Spectrum News, U.S. News
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