NC inmate’s death shows need for prison review

kerrFrom News and Observer

When a convict goes to prison, he loses his freedom, but he does not lose his humanity. And he should not lose his life.

Michael Anthony Kerr lost all. The 53-year-old former Army sergeant who had a mental illness died March 12 while being transported from the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville to Central Prison in Raleigh. He was being taken to Raleigh for medical treatment after spending his last five days in solitary confinement, handcuffed and lying unresponsive in his own waste.

Kerr’s sister, Brenda Liles, who had taken her concerns about her brother’s well-being to top prison officials, said, “They treated him like a dog.”

Now the state Department of Public Safety is treating the public like Kerr’s death is none of its business. The department gave minimal assistance to the medical examiner doing the autopsy, and Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry has declined to discuss the facts of the case . The matter has been handled internally, he said, adding, “We have been righteous with our investigation and dismissals.” Forty employees were disciplined, nine were fired and two resigned.

A wider look needed

No matter the number punished, questions remain: How could Kerr have died in such a manner? What is wrong with the state’s prison culture and staffing that no one helped him? And what does the case say about the state’s treatment of mentally ill patients? Kerr spent 35 days in solitary confinement before he died of dehydration. How many other Michael Anthony Kerrs are among the state’s 37,500 inmates?

Fortunately the U.S. Attorney is reviewing the state’s conduct with regard to Kerr’s treatment. The State Bureau of Investigation is also investigating. (It didn’t take long for the move of the SBI to the Department of Public Safety to create an apparent conflict.) But those inquires alone will not provide a wider look at prison conditions, especially with regard to solitary confinement and mentally ill inmates.

Last Sunday, The News & Observer’s Joe Neff added another layer of detail to Kerr’s ordeal based on notes taken by an inmate in a cell adjacent to Kerr’s. Prison officials refused to allow Neff to interview the inmate, David Chambers, a 32-year-old from Charlotte who is serving a 17-year sentence for kidnapping, robbery and assault.

A window into wretchedness

Chambers wrote a letter (with sometimes incorrect grammar and spelling) to Kerr’s sister that included his daily observations. On March 11, the day before Kerr died, Chambers wrote: “Kerr ate nothing and did not respond to anyone. Sgt told him let us no when you want out of those handcuffs but never responded. Later a nurse came don’t know what time heard them talking with Mr. Kerr. They ask did he want his vitals takeing he didn’t respond so they said are you refuseing to have your vitals taken he didn’t say anything so they say okay you refuseing and left.”

That brief passage offers a window into the wretched conditions and callous treatment of mentally ill inmates whose illnesses are aggravated by prolonged stays in solitary confinement. And yet this look into the system is not spurring action. The Department of Public Safety is focused on damage control. The governor and legislative leaders are silent.

Adding to the disgrace of the Kerr case is a new report from the UNC School of Law that found that on any given day about 9 percent of the state’s 37,500 prison inmates are held in solitary confinement. Of that group, 20 percent have diagnoses of serious mental illness.

It’s time for the General Assembly to look at whether the state’s prisons are becoming not simply warehouses but torture chambers for the mentally ill. The extent of the problem must be measured, and the expense of solving it must be acknowledged or met. When officers brought Kerr’s dead body to Raleigh, they also brought a sorrowful message to the capital. State leaders should respond to it.