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Kentucky

Inmate starves to death

Prison staff fired; state investigates

  • This Sept. 10, 2007, photo shows, the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Ky. One doctor has been fired and another is in the midst of being dismissed from penitentiary, after an inmate, James Kenneth Embry, went on a hunger strike and died Jan. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Daniel R. Patmore)

    This Sept. 10, 2007, photo shows, the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Ky. One doctor has been fired and another is in the midst of being dismissed from penitentiary, after an inmate, James Kenneth Embry, went on a hunger strike and died Jan. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Daniel R. Patmore)

  • This undated photo provided by the Kentucky Department of Corrections shows James Kenneth Embry, who died  Jan. 13, 2014, after a four-month hunger strike that took 32 pounds off his 6-foot frame in the last month of his life. Since his death the lead physician at the prison has been fired and state officials are in the midst of dismissing the lead psychologist. (AP Photo/Kentucky Department of Corrections)

    This undated photo provided by the Kentucky Department of Corrections shows James Kenneth Embry, who died Jan. 13, 2014, after a four-month hunger strike that took 32 pounds off his 6-foot frame in the last month of his life. Since his death the lead physician at the prison has been fired and state officials are in the midst of dismissing the lead psychologist. (AP Photo/Kentucky Department of Corrections)

  • This Sept. 10, 2007, photo shows, the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Ky. One doctor has been fired and another is in the midst of being dismissed from penitentiary, after an inmate, James Kenneth Embry, went on a hunger strike and died Jan. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Daniel R. Patmore)
  • This undated photo provided by the Kentucky Department of Corrections shows James Kenneth Embry, who died  Jan. 13, 2014, after a four-month hunger strike that took 32 pounds off his 6-foot frame in the last month of his life. Since his death the lead physician at the prison has been fired and state officials are in the midst of dismissing the lead psychologist. (AP Photo/Kentucky Department of Corrections)

A prison doctor has been fired and two other staffers are in the midst of being dismissed after an inmate at the Kentucky State Penitentiary starved himself to death, a case that has exposed lapses in medical treatment and in how hunger strikes are handled at the facility.

Prison officials have asked prosecutors to investigate after the Associated Press began asking questions about the inmate’s death.

James Kenneth Embry, 57 and with just three years left on a nine-year sentence for drug offenses, began to spiral out of control in spring 2013, after he stopped taking anti-anxiety medication. Seven months later, in December, after weeks of erratic behavior – from telling prison staff he felt anxious and paranoid to banging his head on his cell door – Embry eventually refused most of his meals.

By the time of his death in January, he had shed more than 30 pounds on his 6-foot frame and died weighing just 138 pounds, according to documents reviewed by the AP.

An internal investigation determined that medical personnel failed to provide him medication that may have kept his suicidal thoughts at bay and didn’t take steps to check on him as his condition worsened. The internal review of Embry’s death also exposed broader problems involving the treatment of inmates – including a failure to regularly check inmates on medical rounds and communication lapses among medical staff.

The AP, tipped off to Embry’s death, obtained scores of documents under Kentucky’s Open Records Act, including a report detailing the investigation into Embry’s death, an autopsy report and personnel files. Along with interviews with corrections officials and correspondence with inmates, the documents describe Embry’s increasingly paranoid behavior until his death and the numerous opportunities for various prison staff to have intervened.

“It’s just very, very, very disturbing,” said Greg Belzley, a Louisville, Ky.-based attorney who specializes in inmate rights litigation and reviewed some of the documents obtained by the AP. “How do you just watch a man starve to death?”

The documents show a prison system with a dated protocol for handling hunger strikes, staff who weren’t familiar with its provisions, and others who said they were told not to follow them.

In Embry’s case, those in charge of his well-being were simply counting on him to cave in and start eating again on his own, the records show.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office criminal review of Embry’s death is ongoing, Daniel Kemp, a spokesman for Attorney General Jack Conway said.

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