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To Die in an Alabama Cell

Black lives matter, including those behind bars.

(Image: Prison bars via Shutterstock)

In Alabama, several prisoner deaths resulting from apparent negligence by corrections staff illustrate a growing problem that can be fatal. While national conversations around racial injustice dominate our news cycles, it’s crucial that the lives of those behind bars be taken into account.

In Alabama, imprisonment can be a death sentence: Recently, a number of stories of prisoners who have died in their cells in that state have made national headlines.

On November 1, 2014, 18-year-old Sheneque Proctor’s life ended in a holding cell at the Bessemer City Jail. The teenage mother’s untimely death would leave an infant child behind. She had been detained by police at 2:39 pm, charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. She was in her cell being checked on routinely, according to police, but by 4:40 am the next morning of November 2, 2014, she was pronounced dead.

The circumstances around her death were mysterious for some time during the initial reports. No one was sure how Proctor died and people were growing suspicious that authorities were hiding something. The news still caught the eye of some people participating in “Black Lives Matter” protests around the country, and the local Birmingham NAACP chapter. Eventually, a petition was created demanding an investigation into the matter, and that request was met. Still, questions remain.

An autopsy ruled Proctor’s death an apparent poly-drug overdose. The city website states clearly that their police department’s mission is “to preserve life” – yet Proctor died under its watch, and an investigation by The Guardian explains that her life was indeed preservable.

“Had Proctor’s deteriorating condition been detected earlier, there is a chance that her life could have been saved,” the investigation notes. “Experts in the prevention of overdoses say that numerous treatments are available to paramedics, including the drug Naloxone to counteract methadone, CPR, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, intubation or ventilation.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Proctor’s mother cements the underlying truth: “She may have acted out, but that doesn’t mean you refuse to help her.”

Similarly, consider the most recent case of 19-year-old Tony Lewis. He entered the Montgomery County Jail on December 9 and died January 14, possibly of a drug overdose, which is still being investigated. The grieving family is suspicious of the circumstances around his death in many of the same ways that Proctor’s family is. Their concern is negligence. Lewis showed no signs of physical trauma when he entered custody, according to the police.

Lewis’ family hired Montgomery attorney Julian McPhillips to help with his case. McPhillips told the Montgomery Advertiser that the family didn’t suspect foul play, but “if foul play includes waiting too long to get medical help or tasing someone, which I think it does, then, yes, they believe foul play may have been involved.”

McPhillips told Truthout he did not think Lewis’ death was intentional. “What you have here is a great deal of negligence,” he said. McPhillips shared two sworn affidavits from witnesses in the jail with Truthout.

The first witness, a prisoner named Melvin Cook, describes seeing Lewis ingest a “small white brick” he showed him at lunch. Cook says he told him, “Man, you need to get yourself check[ed] and let the police know what’s going on.” Lewis is said to have told Cook he was going to be all right. After, Cook states, Lewis fell ill and started sweating very badly. The witness also describes seeing Lewis try to force himself to throw up, passing out and shaking on the floor.

In the beginning moments of the situation that ultimately ended in Tony Lewis’ death, Cook had the wherewithal to see Lewis was in dire need of care, and was possibly dying. Cook and other prisoners started yelling for help. Overall, Cook claims it took approximately 15 to 20 minutes for the nurse to come to Lewis’ aid.

According to a second affidavit, the second witness, a man named Kennedy Norman, also describes seeing Lewis when he was ill. He recalls having a clear view of everything that was going on during a moment of intense commotion. Norman claims Lewis was brought up to his area by two guards and another prisoner as he was checking out of the jail. After hearing Lewis scream, he states a large guard tussled with him, ultimately putting him on the floor with a knee on the back of his neck. A nurse came to give Lewis a shot to alleviate the situation, but after deciding he was moving too much, she said he was faking and discontinued her efforts. A second nurse would try to continue providing care before Lewis was given over to paramedics to be pronounced dead.

It’s worth noting that the nurse who thought Lewis was faking was White and the nurse who tried to revive him after that was Black – possibly a relevant illustration of “unconscious” bias. It’s also worth emphasizing that the negligence and unconcern here was a death sentence: Overt negligence can be a force of lethal violence.

Tony Lewis’ mother, Sabrina Jackson, agrees. “I’m thinking he was going to jail to be rehabilitated, not die for his behavior,” she told Truthout. “I thought it would teach him a lesson, but if I had known he was going to die …”

She was first told of her son’s death by another person who’d just been released from the jail. “I stayed down there four hours just for them to tell me my son had expired,” Jackson said. She told Truthout they informed her as if her son’s death meant nothing.

The family of Tony Lewis is considering bringing a lawsuit against the Montgomery City Jail.

Much further north, in Huntsville, Alabama, three families are doing just that. The families of Nikki Listau, Deundrez Woods and Tanisha Jefferson are suing over their family members’ deaths while in police custody. Listau died when her alcohol withdrawal reached a point that she suffered seizures and broke her left femur and fractured multiple ribs. Jefferson’s constipation went untreated – and eventually took her life. Woods died from a neglected gangrene infection. The fact that these problems – all easily treatable – are taking lives in present-day Alabama jail cells is plainly egregious.

Driving three hours south, in Wetumpka, Alabama, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has claimed headlines for more than a few years now. Its abuses have become well known nationwide. Mother Jones ranked it one of the 10 worst prisons in the United States. A stark New York Times profile from March 2014 opens: “For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.”

Those words couldn’t be truer. A US Department of Justice investigation found that at least one-third of the 99 employees at Tutwiler “had sex” with prisoners. Although perhaps not every instance here could be considered rape, many of them certainly fall into that category, and in all cases, the power dynamic between a prison employee and a prisoner is enormously skewed. Many women exchanged sex with guards for basic necessities. Male guards walk in and out of showers unannounced and ask female inmates to perform strip shows for their entertainment. For almost 20 years, women inside of this facility have regularly been raped, beaten and deprived of their basic needs.

This type of abuse has been allowed to occur on a regular basis. These women are neglected as a form of social control and domination during their (sometimes lengthy) imprisonment. Medical neglect and isolation are also not unheard of at Tutwiler. Many women who were raped by guards end up pregnant and women who report misconduct are sometimes punished with solitary confinement. Several damning profiles of Tutwiler have described a culture of fear rampant throughout the prison.

The victims of abuse I have mentioned thus far throughout this piece are overwhelmingly Black and mostly women. Women’s imprisonment is increasing at nearly double the rate of men’s. It’s crucial that the lives of those inside jails and prisons be taken into account while national conversations around injustice dominate our news cycles.

After a federal investigation at Tutwiler, and other prison problems, the state of Alabama is under pressure to reform its prison system. It’s the most overcrowded in the nation at almost 200 percent its capacity. Alabama is also third in the country for locking up its own citizens. Normalized intimidation, violence and neglect are commonplace themes in this country’s prison system, but Alabama is especially bad. And the last thing Alabama politicians want is the impending federal takeover if they don’t fix the problem.

State Sen. Cam Ward has been decrying Alabama’s prison dysfunction, and has emerged as a figurehead in the movement to address the crisis, leading Alabama’s prison reform task force. Ward is also drafting a reform bill that he hopes will include progressive measures like parole reform, alternative programs and introducing mandatory swabs for DNA testing.

“The system we have is broken and invites federal takeover,” Ward said. Even though he hadn’t heard of the particular neglect cases, he seemed sympathetic. “Those families have every right to call for an investigation and there always needs to be a follow up.”

The deaths from neglect tie in with a larger tragedy unfolding on the backs of the most vulnerable families in our society: Salvageability is not a shared value nor does it encompass many within this society. Race, gender and class are just a few of the things that might lead someone to let us die. As Tony Lewis’ mother said of her son’s death, “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair at all.”

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