The mystery isn’t how he died; it’s the Department of Prisons’ silence.
Michael Kerr was in and out of trouble with the law for a decade – he was a thief, assaulted a woman and tried to outrun a policeman in a patrol car – then two crimes committed against him left him on the edge of madness: First his son Anthony was murdered then, a year later, his second son Gabriel was murdered then, three months after that, Kerr fired nine shots into a house trailer (where the second murderer’s cousin lived) and, holding the empty pistol, called out “this isn’t over” before he drove away.
His sister says he suffered three nervous breakdowns in the local jail waiting for trial and after he arrived in prison the doctors there diagnosed him with schizophrenia but no one bothered to ask if madness meant his thirty one year prison sentence was a mistake. Three years later he was found dead in the back of a prison van.
An autopsy the next morning revealed he’d died for an unexpected reason: Thirst. But an autopsy couldn’t explain how a man in a prison cell with a sink couldn’t get a drink of water so the Medical Examiner, Susan Venuti, asked for Kerr’s prison records but the Prisons Department told her, No.
Months later, reporters digging through court filings and letters (including a letter from the prisoner in the cell next to Kerr) pieced together part of the story.
The doctors at Kerr’s prison had put him on medications which worked fine until the morning three years later when he stopped taking the drugs; three months after that he landed in solitary confinement and four days after that a prison Captain reported he was just sitting on the floor in his cell in his own urine.
After Kerr clogged up his sink and flooded his cell four times they shut off his water; when a guard, afraid he was becoming dehydrated, handed him a cup of water he took a couple swallows, poured the rest on the cell floor and looked back at the guard and said, “Come on in the water’s fine.”
Kerr’d spent seventeen days in solitary when the prisoner in the next cell began keeping a notebook: On March 6 he wrote Kerr “used the bathroom on hisself” then added he’d heard the guard and a sergeant talking saying “his pants is halfway down, his butt is out, look at his crusty feet.”
The prisoner wrote Kerr “ate nothing” the next day and “they called a Code Blue because he was unresponsive” – a guard and a captain went into Kerr’s cell and put him in leg irons and handcuffs then a nurse entered the cell and examined him – after she left the guard removed the leg irons, walked out of the cell, turned, and told Kerr to come to the door so he could remove his handcuffs but Kerr didn’t move.
Two days later the inmate in the next cell wrote “third straight day in handcuff pants still half way off and urine and feces all over cell.”
On the twenty-first day Kerr was still lying on his cot and the guards, along with a nurse, went into his cell and “asked did he want his vitals taken he didn’t respond so they said are you refusing to have your vitals taken he didn’t say nothing so they say okay you refusing and left.”
The next morning a prison psychologist called Kerr’s sister and told her, Your prayers have been answered, they’re moving him to the hospital at Central Prison.
When the guards went to move Kerr he was lying on his cot, pants and underwear around his ankles, in excrement and urine, and when they tried to unlock the handcuffs they were clogged with dried feces.
When they rolled him out the cell door in a wheelchair the prisoner in the next cell saw “his eyes wide open but seeing nothing and he had something white coming out of his mouth.”
The guards drove Kerr not to the local hospital but to Central Prison Hospital three hours away and between one prison and another the evils he’d done and the evils done to him consummated in dry squalor inside the back of the prison van – a prison official called his sister that afternoon to tell her he was dead when he arrived in Raleigh.
There was no confession. Or contrition. Instead a veil of silence descended over the Department of Prisons. They told the Medical Examiner, No, then had a committee write a report then did an ‘internal’ investigation then, a month later, an under Secretary – David Guice – called for the SBI to investigate but the minute an SBI agent asked for Kerr’s records the Prison Department told him, No, too.
The silence stretched on for five months then the Prisons Department cracked the door a fraction, giving the Medical Examiner not Kerr’s medical records or prison records but the report written by its internal committee; after that the Medical Examiner gave up asking and released her autopsy report and said without Kerr’s records she couldn’t determine whether Kerr’s death was suicide, homicide or accident.
A week later the U.S. Attorney in Raleigh began a grand jury investigation and Kerr’s story landed in the newspapers and the scramble began in the Prisons Department: The Secretary of Public Safety, Frank Perry, announced his Department had conducted not just a “thorough” but a “transparent” investigation and that the Department had disciplined 40 employees – including nine who’d been fired – then added, “We have been righteous with our investigation and dismissals.”
The press then asked Perry why a “transparent” investigation hadn’t included giving Kerr’s records to the Medical Examiner and Perry announced that was for “a righteous reason like privacy or respect for HIPAA” then a reporter, getting down to brass tacks, asked if Perry knew of even one Medical Examiner who’d ever before been denied a dead man’s prison records because of HIPAA laws and Perry said he didn’t know.
Broken politics is more than just Congressmen pointing fingers and screaming.
There may have been a dozen reasons why silence descended on the Department of Prisons: Frank Perry may have been worried about a lawsuit – he may be working to avoid a lawsuit by negotiating a settlement, right now, and he may figure the less known about what went on in Michael Kerr’s prison cell the less his Department will have to pay. Or there could be other reasons.
But Frank Perry holds his office as a public trust and when he buries the truth that’s a breach of trust which, in a democracy, is like plague: Secretary Perry, speak no more of righteousness until you tell how Michael Kerr died of thirst in solitary confinement.
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