Wake-up call in inmate's death; Prison officials let man starve himself

April 25, 2014 

The starvation death of a Kentucky prisoner who was refused medication to treat his mental illness should be sending alarms through the state's prison system and the Beshear administration.

The medical neglect of James Kenneth Embry, 57, at the Eddyville penitentiary is shocking and inhumane.

Also shocking is the failure of prison officials to have exercised adequate oversight of medical personnel, including a Nashville-based company, Correct Care Solutions, that the state has contracted with to provide nurses for all 12 of Kentucky's prisons.

Reporter Brett Barrouquere of the Associated Press used the Open Records Act to review scores of documents that detailed Embry's increasingly paranoid and suicidal behavior and the many opportunities the staff had to intervene between Dec. 10 when Embry all but stopped eating or drinking and his death Jan. 13.

A week before Embry stopped eating, he had told the prison psychologist that he wanted to resume taking anti-anxiety medication that he had stopped taking in May. The psychologist, who is in the process of being fired, denied his request, even after he later began banging his head on his cell door and saying he had no hope.

The prison doctor, who has since been fired from his $164,554 state job, told Barrouquere that he never "saw this guy, never met him."

Medical staff told internal investigators that they were not familiar with prison protocol for handling hunger strikes or that the prison doctor and an advanced practice registered nurse with the Nashville company had forbidden them from following the protocol.

The guidelines for prisoners who refuse food require checks of vital signs, physician visits and psychological evaluations on a regular basis. The advanced practice nurse had refused a request from other medical staffers to move Embry to the infirmary on the day he died, by which time he had lost 30 pounds.

The AP reports that internal reviews of the starvation death exposed broader problems with prison medical care, including a failure to regularly check inmates on medical rounds and communication breakdowns among medical staff.

This was not the first instance of neglect by the prison doctor, who reached an undisclosed settlement with the family of an inmate who died after the doctor diagnosed him as faking illness.

U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell Jr. wrote that the attention paid to the inmate's medical complaints was "so cursory as to amount to no treatment at all."

Embry, who had three years left on a nine-year drug sentence, apparently had no family or friends and was buried in a potter's grave.

Prison officials asked prosecutors to investigate after the AP began asking questions.

But the responsibility for ensuring the humane treatment of Kentucky inmates rests with prison officials and the Beshear administration. This appalling wake-up call should not be ignored.

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