From Indy Week/by Billy Ball
It had been weeks since Katrenia Robinson had last seen her husband, but she did not recognize the sunken, beaten man she saw on the funeral parlor table.
Michael Anthony Kerr’s broad, round frame had withered during his month-long stay in isolation at Alexander Correctional Institution in western North Carolina. His forehead was badly bruised and his lip was swollen.
That is not my husband, Robinson thought to herself.
“I think he died in that cell,” she said. “I think he died in that hole.”
As of Monday, the details on Kerr’s death are scant. He was officially pronounced dead March 11 at Central Prison in Raleigh. Inmate health records are confidential, but family members say they were told by prison staff that Kerr, a 54-year-old felon with a lengthy criminal record and a history of mental illness, died en route to the prison from Alexander Correctional to Central Prison. It’s unclear how he died, they say, or why he was not taken to a hospital.
When first contacted by the INDY Monday, N.C. Department of Public Safety [DPS] spokeswoman Pam Walker initially indicated that there were no plans for an independent investigation. But Walker reversed course hours later, saying that her agency is launching an “aggressive” internal investigation—almost three weeks after Kerr’s death—and will request a separate inquiry by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
A full report from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Kerr’s death is pending, but could take three to six months to complete, officials say.
According to prison records, Kerr had been segregated from the general prison population in a solitary cell since Feb. 5. Isolation is a common but controversial method of handling mentally ill prison inmates in North Carolina and in other states, even though numerous mental health experts have criticized the practice as harmful, even dangerous.
Corye Dunn, public policy director for the nonprofit Disability Rights North Carolina, said her organization contacted DPS about Kerr’s death after learning of it late last week.
“Anytime we hear about someone in prolonged confinement or restraint immediately followed by their death, it raises concerns for us,” Dunn said. “And we want to pay attention to that.”
Walker confirmed that DPS has been in contact with Disability Rights North Carolina, and would cooperate with an examination from that organization too. “We want to take this very, very seriously,” Walker said.
Prisons nationwide have been scrutinized in recent years for their treatment of patients with mental illness. Particularly at issue is the system of locking away those inmates in segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement, for prolonged periods.
A 2011 internal report on Raleigh’s Central Prison detailed problems with solitary confinement there, citing squalid conditions in which mentally ill prisoners were left ignored and unmedicated, an issue prison officials say has since been corrected.
Walker said inmate privacy laws prevent her from disclosing why Kerr was being transferred to Central Prison, but the 752-bed facility is the state’s main medical and mental health center for male inmates.
By most accounts, Kerr needed both attention and medication. Family members say they were told he required a wheelchair to leave his cell in Alexander Correctional, but he never needed assistance walking before.
He had also stopped taking his medicine, they say, essential for the treatment of his mental illness. He had a nervous breakdown, his family said, after two of his sons died—apparently as a result of gang violence—in 10 years.
On March 4, Liles said she called prison officials at Alexander Correctional to complain that he had been mistreated. When Liles and Kerr had last spoken, she said Kerr sounded increasingly depressed and that he needed to be transferred to Central Prison for treatment.
Eight days later, she received a phone call from a Central Prison chaplain telling her that her brother had died. Liles’ next phone call was to Alexander Correctional. “I said, ‘My brother’s dead,’” she says. “I said, ‘Y’all murdered my brother.’ I said, ‘Blood is on your hands.’ I said, ‘Your hands are not clean.’”
Liles says she believes prison staff failed her brother for isolating him as his mental health declined. “My brother is not a dog,” she said. “They’d even lock you up for being cruel to an animal, but my brother is not an animal.”
Kerr’s family says he was a U.S. Army veteran, a pastor and a deeply religious man with a past marred by violence. His extensive criminal record, which dates back to 1995, includes numerous convictions for offenses such as assault on a female, larceny and breaking and entering. Kerr was tried and convicted as a habitual felon in 2011, a method whereby prosecutors seek a harsher sentence based upon a defendant’s criminal history.
Prison records show that had he lived would have likely stayed in jail until July 2039.
However, Liles says there was more to Kerr than his criminal record. When her own son died last January—another apparent victim of gang violence—Kerr called her to pray.
Kerr frequently wrote letters to his family. Each Christmas, he mailed a wish list of simple items. This past Christmas, Kerr asked for Fig Newtons, cheese sticks and Nutty Buddy Bars, all of which were returned to Liles by prison officials following his death.
None of the food had been touched, she said.
“Lord have mercy, he was friendly,” she says. “And loving. I’m still in denial. It don’t seem real to me that he’s gone.”