Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Who Guards the Guards?

By William Fisher

Fabian Avery III was seventeen when he died.

And were it not for how he died, we might offer our condolences, maybe we’d say he was in prison anyway, but we probably would not be reading this story. There’d have been no one to write it.

You’re reading about his death because he was yet another victim of a prison system that is utterly broken and whose inmates are just about utterly forgotten.

If you have a strong stomach, here’s Fabian’s story as told by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway in the Atlanta Constitution.

He died last year in solitary confinement. He died because the jail he was locked up in had only the services of a doctor and a nurse who allegedly failed to try to get any specialist professional help from anywhere else.

Fabian was sick, very sick. He died of appendicitis and complications from a bowel obstruction, according to investigative documents compiled by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He first reported being ill on Feb. 24, 2011 and was given minimal attention. He complained of nausea, stomach pains, vomiting and lower back pains, as well as frequently vomiting and defecating on himself and failing to clean himself up – reportedly the reason he was placed in solitary. Jail staff allegedly did little to help get Avery the necessary care.

He had been arrested in December 2010 on armed robbery charges. He was transferred from the Fulton County jail in late February 2011 to alleviate overcrowding and placed in a small-town lockup at the Mize Street Municipal jail in the South Georgia town of Pelham.

According to Casela and Ridgeway, Fabian Avery III weighed 153 pounds when he was transferred to Pelham. He was found dead nearly a month later -- on the morning of March 18, 2011 -- on a mattress on the floor of his 6-by-10-foot isolation cell. They write that his 6-foot-1-inch frame had shriveled to 108 pounds.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that the teenager had been placed in “the hole” after he first reported being sick, ”because he began frequently soiling himself and not cleaning up or showering.” The jail’s nurse reportedly “suggested that Avery might have been faking some of his symptoms,” despite his apparent extreme weight loss.

Now, Fabian’s mother has filed a federal lawsuit against the town of 4,500, the jail’s nurse and doctor, its police department, and four correctional officers, claiming wrongful death and civil rights violations, based on allegations that her son’s serious medical condition was ignored.

The defendants’ attorney reportedly told the AJC: “This is an unfortunate case…If [the jail staff] had any indication that he needed any more medication, it would have been provided.”


OK, you say, this is a tragic story but surely it is not the norm. Well, probably not the norm. In 1930, the year the Federal Bureau of Prisons was founded, there were eleven federal prisons. In 2000, 84 Federal facilities were in operation, 9% more than in 1995

Today, there are 116 institutions, 6 regional offices, a Central Office (headquarters), and community corrections offices that oversee residential reentry centers and home confinement programs.

At the State Prison level, there are 1,320 facilities, 3% more than in 1995; and 264 private facilities, 140% more than in 1995. The maximum number of beds or inmates assigned by a rating official, known as rated capacity, expanded 31%, from 975,719 in 1995 to 1,278,471 in 2000.

In addition, there are thousands of county and town jails. And that’s not counting the infamous immigration detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

But even this humongous number is not enough to house the 1,278,471 prisoners recorded in 2000, up 31% from 975,719 in 1995. On June 30, 2000, State prisons were operating at 1% above their rated capacity, down from 4% over capacity in 1995. The Federal prison system was operating at 34% over capacity at midyear 2000, up from 25% over capacity in 1995.

So with the largest prison population of any modern industrialized country – and easily a third of inmates suffering from mental illness – I could be reasonably sure that we haven’t heard the last of a lot more deaths.

People opt for prison jobs for many different reasons. Some might actually want to do some good.

But putting a prisoner in solitary confinement instead of a hospital because he’s very sick – come on now. Who was it who interviewed these folks for their jobs? Or were they?