Taking the blame: Lessons learned from an inmate’s death


This article was printed originally in "The Correctional Trainer" Spring 2016, the journal of the International Association of Corrections Training Personnel (IACTP). Permission for reprint has been granted by the editor of "The Correctional Trainer." If you wish to learn more about IACTP, please go to www.IACTP.org.

In researching some in services classes and in the process of updating some material, I ran across some articles about a death of a mentally ill inmate at a metropolitan jail. What I will relate to you concerns an apparent lack of professional responsibility-and we can all learn from it. 

In February of 2014, a 56-year-old mentally ill inmate was found unresponsive in his cell at New York’s Rikers Island. He was lying in a pool of his own vomit and blood. When he was discovered, it was reported that his internal body temperature was 103 degrees and the cell temperature was 101 degrees. He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and the prescribed psychotropic medication that he was on made him more susceptible to the effects of heat. A work order to correct the heat in his cell had been submitted but was not processed right away because of a holiday weekend.

The 36-year-old officer assigned to the post pleaded guilty in the inmate’s death and received five years of probation, thus avoiding a possible sentence of four years. The deceased inmate’s family received a settlement of $2.25 million.  

Things to Consider
This incident can be a ‘wake-up call’ for corrections officers, trainers, and supervisors. Please note:

•    The unresponsive inmate was found by the relief officer 20 minutes after the accused CO reportedly left her post.
•    The accused CO at first said that she checked on the inmates in the mental health observation unit, but jail video disproved that, in effect showing that she had lied. 
    Officials stated to the media that the inmate was not checked for at least four hours in a housing section of the jail that had a malfunctioning heating unit.
•    The accused CO was disciplined in 2010 for leaving the facility without permission and in an administrative action, agreed to give up five vacation (leave) days, though her attorney said that she had been on a break-still a policy violation.
    She was brought in for relief after working three straight shifts. Her attorney said that she was not informed of complaints about the heat in the area, which she, according to news reports could feel herself.

The inmate — incarcerated on a trespassing misdemeanor and unable to make a $2,500 bail — died. He was mentally ill and his death has been described as literally ‘baking to death’. 

The CO’s attorney said that laying everything at her feet was unfair, including why a mentally ill man was incarcerated because of the inability to post bail. The CO said, “I don’t know why I’m getting all the blame.”

Was there enough blame to go around? Let’s ask these questions:

•    Inmates were living in a unit where the heat was not working properly. Could it have been fixed, even on a holiday weekend? People and in this case a special needs inmate-were living there.
    Was agency supervision not strict enough with a CO who had been in trouble before for leaving her post without authorization?
•    Should line staff have received better training on the effects of psychotropic medication?
•    Should protocols have been in place about relieving COs on post? They do need a break occasionally.

What lesson are to be learned? The most important in my mind was that correctional officers are on the front line in inmate supervision-and that line has to be manned at all times. Also, an absence for only a few minutes can have dire consequences. 
Remember-you are on the post for a reason-the safe, secure and humane confinement of inmates. That’s your job. Anything can happen-at any time.

Hopefully this tragedy will make you THINK. Inmates are people — in your care!

References:
Katz, Miranda. (2016, February 18). Rikers Guard Who Let Inmate “Bake to Death” and Lied About It Won’t Get Any Prison Time. the gothamist, www.gothamist.com Retrieved May 22, 2016.
Pearson, Jake. (2014, May 30). CO in hot cell death has record of leaving post. Associated Press, CorrectionsOne News, www.correctionsone.com, Retrieved November 2, 2014.

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