Hundreds of Inmates Should Not Be Dying in U.S. Jails
885 inmates died in U.S. jails in 2010, some on the floors of their cells while their calls for help went unheeded. These hundreds of people had yet to stand trial or to be convicted for the crimes they were arrested for, yet were essentially treated like criminals, writes Cara Tabachnick, the deputy director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
One such inmate was Kyam Livingston, a 38-year-old mother of two, who died “among fetid conditions” in a cell in Brooklyn’s “central booking” jail last July. Aleah Holland, another inmate (one of 15 in a cell) and a registered nurse, told the New York Daily News that police had ignored Livington’s complaints of stomach pains and diarrhea. When Holland and other inmates banged on the bars requesting help, officials told them that Livingston was an alcoholic and that they should “‘shut up’” or risk losing their chance to be seen by a judge. By the time EMS arrived, Livingston had been “reportedly dead for 20 minutes,” another witness said.
Holland had been jailed after fighting with her roommate. Livingston had been arrested for violating an order of protection obtained by her grandmother, Theresa Johnson. According to Johnson, the order of protection barred her granddaughter from arguing with her and drinking in her apartment but not from living with her; Livingston had reportedly been drinking before she was arrested.
Inmates Who Have Yet to Be Arraigned Receive Little, If Any, Medical Treatment
Both women had yet to be arraigned, much less sentenced, for any wrongdoing when they were placed in the Brooklyn “booking center.” As Tabachnic points out, the jail where Holland and Livingston were being held is one of about 3,000 in the U.S. These facilities are different from prisons and are used to process people before they are arraigned and stand trial. While some inmates are held for 24 hours, others can remain there for a year or even longer.
Of those who are convicted, Tabachnick writes that:
Some will serve a misdemeanor sentence (of under a year). The majority will be let go because the charges against them won’t stick as they move through the legal system. Others will remain in jails while waiting to go to trial too poor to make bail — yet to be convicted of anything. Regardless, they will be treated as criminals.
As a result, there is great hesitancy on the part of security to address sick complaints as seriously as they should be, especially in jail where the churn of people is endless, with most disappearing quickly. For those with health issues, this suspension of belief can prove fatal.
Tabachnick cites a number of other cases in which inmates died after asking — or begging — to have access to medicine for a life-threatening heart condition (as in the case of Irene Bamenga in Albany, N.Y.) and diabetes (as in the case of Sarah Tibbet in Irving, Texas).
Another inmate, Eugene Gruber, died from pneumonia that he contracted after paraplegia from spinal injuries incurred from an altercation with corrections officers in the Lake County Jail in Illinois. Before his death, Lake County prosecutors said that there were “no grounds for criminal charges against staff members involved.” But afterwards, a medical examiner ruled Gruber’s death a homicide, leading to an investigation by the state attorney’s office.
Responsibility For Inmates Is Decentralized
One reason for the poor, or rather non-existent, medical attention that prisoners receive in many jails is that a number of agencies share responsibility for them during the 24-hour arrest-to-arraignment process. In New York City, these include the New York Police Department, the Fire Department, Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health. As a result, it is “hard to assign responsibility when things go wrong.”
The cards are stacked against inmates who have to contend with officers who are more than prone to distrust them, “especially when it comes to health issues.” Doctors and nurses in a correctional setting answer to “dual loyalties” as they lack any information about a prisoner’s medical background, are likely to place security first and have scant resources to care for most medical issues. For most inmates, receiving medical care means an off-site visit to a hospital, a process that, Tabachnick says, “necessitates a delay in arraignments, and arranging an ambulance and police escort, often at a great financial and time cost to the city.”
A report (pdf) released in August of this year by the Department of Justice about mortality in local and state jails found that the majority of jails (81 percent) reported zero deaths in 2011. Heart disease and suicide are the two leading causes of death among prisoners in local jails. After an initial decline in the number of prisoners dying in jails in 2008, the report says that the mortality rate for inmates in jail has remained essentially the same, suggesting that much, much more can be done to improve the medical treatment of those in “booking centers” like the one in which Livingston died.
As Tabachnick writes, “regardless of guilt or innocence, the people in the criminal justice system are still people: mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and their cries for help should not go ignored.” Yet all too often, this is exactly what happens.
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