There's an Alarming Number of Deaths in US Jails

Whether guilty or innocent, people in the criminal justice system are still people. Their cries for help should not go ignored

Kyam Livingston begged for help. After seven hours of lying on the floor of a jail cell, the 38-year-old mother of two died, her calls unheeded by the correction officers providing security for the approximately 15 female inmates at Brooklyn "central booking" jail this past summer, according to witnesses and court documents.

Witnesses told the family that she had died in the cell among fetid conditions before she was taken to Brooklyn Hospital Health Center on 21 July 2013 where Livingston was pronounced dead at 6:58am, according to police reports. A witness, registered nurse Aleah Holland, told The Daily News, that police at Central Booking ignored her complaints of stomach pains and diarrhea. She said that when she and other inmates banged on the bars calling for help, officers told them Livingston was an alcoholic.

No one knows what happened, and no one wants to say. The NYPD told the family that she died of a seizure, but her family says she never suffered from seizures. This October the family sued the city, the NYPD, and the Department of Corrections in an effort to force systemic change and "responsibility" for her death.

Livingston was one of the few hundred jail deaths that happen across the country. In 2011, (the latest available numbers) 885 inmates died (pdf) in the custody of local jails, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. Notice I said jails. These are different from prisons. Prisons are for people who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced. There are roughly 3,000 jails nationwide and each facility is set up to process people that have been arrested before they are arraigned or go to trial. Some will serve a misdemeanor sentence (of under a year). The majority will be let go because the charges against them won't stick as they move through the legal system. Others will remain in jails while waiting to go to trial too poor to make bail - yet to be convicted of anything. Regardless, they will be treated as criminals.

As a result, there is great hesitancy on the part of security to address sick complaints as seriously as they should be, especially in jail where the churn of people is endless, with most disappearing quickly. For those with health issues, this suspension of belief can prove fatal.

Across the nation the news is chilling: in Albany, New York, Irene Bamenga, 29, had pleaded with jail staff to deliver her medicine before dying from a life-threatening heart condition. She was at the jail for a week, where she died awaiting deportation to France.

In Irving, Texas Sarah Tibbet, 37, died on a jail cell floor after not receiving insulin for her diabetes while she was in custody. Her boyfriend, who was in the cell next to her, told the news that he had screamed at the guards at the facility for over 10 minutes until they took action.

In Cook County, Illinois, the death of Eugene Gruber from pneumonia, which resulted from paraplegia following spine injuries suffered in an altercation with a corrections officer in the Lake County Jail was ruled a homicide. Over the next 24 hours, the Chicago Tribune reported, Gruber complained that he couldn't move his legs and was carried around, sometimes with his legs dragging, as guards tried to take his mug shot.

Some jails, such as New York City's Rikers Island, can house inmates on misdemeanor charges for up to a year. But that is often not the case. Hundred of thousands of people pass through jails yearly, in New York City alone the jails processed 90,000 people through its "booking centers". There is no delineation or separation within these facilities. Rapists and murders can be sharing a cell with someone who urinated on the sidewalk. Some people can be in the facilities for 24 hours, others can languish for years.

In "booking centers" agencies from NYPD, FDNY, Department of Corrections to the Department of Mental Health share responsibility for hustling detainees through the 24 hour arrest-to-arraignment process while maintaining their safety, making hard to assign responsibility when things go wrong. In these under resourced and chaotic environments the challenge of protecting - and believing -inmates health concerns can be overwhelming.

For anyone the process is scary, humiliating and contentious. But, in particular, the relationship between the inmates and the officers are especially fraught with distrust, especially when it comes to health issues. There is the dual loyalties of doctors and nurses: in a correctional setting, security is often more important than patient care. Doctors and nurses that staff these jails don't have any medical information or background on the patients that they serve. Resources are scarce. Although some "central bookings" have a clinic on site, for most inmates' health issues mean an off-site visit to the hospital. That necessitates a delay in arraignments, and arranging an ambulance and police escort, often at a great financial and time cost to the city.

Livingston was arrested on the night of 20 July at her 79-year old grandmother's house, accused of violating a specialized protection order in place that forbid her from drinking on the premises or engaging in loud arguments. Police first took her to Kings County Hospital, a public hospital, to get "detoxed" and toxicology tests, a standard procedure when they suspect someone has been drinking. Then they took her to Central Booking, when after she was photographed and her eyes scanned, police handed her over for a medical check in with EMS (part of the FDNY), she was transferred to a female cell until arraignment before the judge.

Then she waited in a cell, waiting to go home, except she never made it. Sixty-six percent of the time, charges are dropped, and people go through a humiliating process only to go home. But regardless of guilt or innocence, the people in the criminal justice system are still people: mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and their cries for help should not go ignored.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 The Guardian