American jails are becoming increasingly dangerous places for people of color. An African-American woman in South Carolina convicted of stealing a candy bar in 2011 has died in jail after being ‘deprived of water’ while vomiting profusely, after being arrested for unpaid fines at a local hospital where she was seeking urgent medical care for a stomach flu. Now, her family is suing the Charleston County Detention Center for negligence and its medical provider for malpractice.
Fifty-year-old Joyce Curnell was found dead July 22nd, 2015 after being held for 27 hours without water or medical attention, according to court documents filed by family attorneys Evans Moore. Curnell suffered from a host of manageable conditions, and alcoholism but jailers left her acute gastroenteritis untreated, and when dehydration set in, she became one of six African-American women to perish in jail during that month alone. It’s unconscionable that jailers ignore the medical needs of any suspect in custody, especially in the case of Mrs. Curnell, who went to the hospital for medical treatment, and wound up taken in on a warrant for unpaid fines on the shoplifting conviction, her first and only criminal offense. Curnell had a payment plan, but fell behind in 2014 leading to the issuance of a bench warrant for her arrest.
It would become Curnell’s death warrant.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) completed their investigation Curnell’s death, and according to the family lawyers surveillance video does exist, but hasn’t been released yet according to the family’s legal team.
No charges will be filed against any of the jailers, “due to the manner of death being classified as ‘natural” by SLED.
The Curnell family retained counsel quickly, who sent “Do Not Destroy” letters to the county facility to preserve the videos, the full results of which are unknown.
Sadly, Curnell’s family tipped local law enforcement about her whereabouts in a vain attempt to get treatment for the disease of alcoholism from which she suffered.
Her family assumed that being held in a detention center for a few days would help Joyce Curnell dry out, but their faith in the correctional power of a detention center was sadly misplaced according to family attorneys.
That July, Sandra Bland had died in a Texas jail just 9 days earlier that month, but her passing drew far more publicity because of the violent arrest video showing Texas Trooper Brian Encinia escalating a minor traffic stop into the tragedy of her later death in prison, then caught lying about it in the police cruiser’s dash cam and subsequent report. Encinia wasn’t charged with police brutality, but he was recently charged with lying on a police report. Nobody in Waller County’s jail was charged in Bland’s death, even though most people believe the jailers were to blame. But Waller County jail isn’t just losing the lives of african-american women in its jail, Bland’s cousin shared stories about white men who also perished under mysterious circumstances in the rural jail run by Sheriff Glenn Smith who was fired for making racist remarks while leading a local city’s police department near Prairie View A&M University, but later elected by Waller County voters to his current job overseeing county law enforcement and its jail too.
Unfortunately, there’s no video recording surfaced yet which reveals the last moments of Joyce Curnell’s life, unlike many other instances where police or jailers have ignored the medical needs of an African-American woman, leading to their untimely deaths. This past winter, events leading to Barbara Dawson‘s death in outside north Florida hospital was recorded after officers forcibly evicted the 57-year-old from her hospital room, as she protested loudly. Dawson died from a blood clot which had traveled into her lungs, known as a pulmonary embolism. For comparison’s sake, it is the same condition Miami Heat basketball star Chris Bosh and is easily treated with blood thinning medications once properly diagnosed. The family retained civil rights lawyers Parks and Crump – who also represent Corey Jones who died at the hands of a Palm Beach Gardens police officer – to explore their options about bringing suit against police that incident.
Virginia woman Natasha McKenna also died at the hands of jailers while suffering mental health problems, in an incident recorded by Arlington County Sheriffs. Sickeningly, McKenna’s captors told her that, “We are your friends” before shocking her multiple times with a Taser weapon, including after she was already in a restraining chair. The officers failed to monitor her vital signs after the seven men finished thoroughly strapping the 5 foot, 3 inch tall woman to a gurney and by the time they figured out McKenna wasn’t breathing it took nearly two minutes just to start CPR. By then it was too late, more than ten minutes had elapsed from the time McKenna had likely stopped breathing, until officers were able to start life saving efforts and she fell into a coma and died shortly thereafter.
It took seven long months to convince authorities to hand over the video of Natasha McKenna shot from inside the jail, and they only did so after clearing all officers involved in the gruesome 50 minute video.
Certainly, the Curnell family lawyers are fighting to obtain release of all of the video documentation which Charleston’s jails surely maintained. Compounding these tragedies are the fact that debts are the reasons for jailing many who cannot pay fines or bills, like Rex Iverson, a white man jailed in a Utah prison who died under mysterious circumstances after being incarcerated ironically for an unpaid ambulance bill.
Jailers regularly withhold these vital pieces of evidence from families in hopes of deterring or deferring legal actions and making it more difficult to prosecute individuals for callously ignoring jailed citizens. The case of Michael Robinson, who died from insulin shock in the small town Pemiscott Jail, near Saint Louis, Missouri over the summer is sadly all too common for those arrested on petty offenses and denied medical care. Shamefully, Robinson was placed under arrest for falling behind on child support payments (coincidentally, the same reason Walter Scott elected to flee Michael Slager in North Charleston) and then left to die as his family begged to deliver life saving medicine to the young father of three, who like Bland was being held without bail at the time.
South Carolina’s conservative local news coverage has focused on the cost to taxpayers, ignoring the human cost incurred when law abiding families think that corrections facilities will act to preserve life, rather than callously take it. Now, the Curnell family faces an uphill battle in their fight for justice, as jailers are sure to argue in court that the middle aged woman’s health situation was her cause of death, rather than their lack of medical attention while she was in crisis. Contrary to the constant denials of Republicans and FOX News, there are deep and structural race issues that plague our police forces, and they must be held accountable. Nobody deserves to die like this.
Grant Stern is an Editor-At-Large and Podcast host for OccupyDemocrats. He's also mortgage broker, writer, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida.