As He Lay Dying, In Prison

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John LashI remember the first time I saw a prisoner dying from medical neglect. He lived in the dorm with me, which was on the same floor as the medical section of the prison. People were placed there if they had serious conditions. This young man had severe asthma, and was often in need of oxygen and medications to help him breathe.

Overnight he had been sent to see the nurse several times, and was still having trouble breathing. He stood grasping the bars, his breath a hoarse, roaring sound. Occasionally he would muster enough air to tell the guard, “I need to go to medical.” The guard’s reply, “You have already been seen,” was delivered in a gruff and peremptory tone. He seemed disgusted that this boy was still bothering him.

As I left my cell I looked at my fellow prisoner, but he was not aware of me. His eyes were dull and gray and he continued to stare at the door to the medical section, some 50 feet or so away. Several of my friends and I told the guard he needed to help that boy, but he told us to shut up and keep moving. Fifteen minutes later, by the time I had gone to breakfast, he was dead.

I thought about this story when I read an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Favian Avery III, who died last year in a south Georgia jail when his appendicitis and intestinal obstruction went untreated for several weeks. His mother filed a lawsuit this week claiming deliberate indifference and incompetence by the staff of the jail in Pelham, Ga. He was 17 years old.

As I read the story I became more and more angry, thinking of him laying in his cell slowly wasting away. He entered the jail weighing 153 pounds, and when he died, Favian, a six- foot one-inch tall young man, weighed 108 pounds. Staff claimed they were unaware of his condition.

What makes me angry is the sheer number of similar instances I can recall. Friends I had who were untreated or neglected until it was too late. All of them suffered, some eventually died. All due to the indifference and the dehumanization that is the standard in too many jails and prisons around the country.

Favian reported being ill on Feb. 14, 2011 with symptoms including vomiting, back pain, stomach pain, and nausea. Despite his continued complaints and pleas, his medical attention was minimal. He became unable to move well, and began to defecate and vomit on himself. Jail staff placed him in an isolation cell on March 18, and he died there several hours later.

Favian was in jail for armed robbery, but let’s not forget that he was innocent. No conviction was ever won in his case. He was merely in pre-trial detention. Also, recall that he was a juvenile, and as such, even if charged as an adult, deserved extra care from his captors. Why was he not afforded such care, even though it was his right?

As a prisoner he was outside of “the scope of justice.” People in his position are not valued as much as other human beings. They are seen as “other.” Training in a correctional environment often explicitly categorizes prisoners as the enemy, as people who will lie and manipulate, and who are deserving of what they get. This position is reinforced over and over by peers and superiors. Fellow correctional officers often ridicule staff members who do show concern. The “us against them” mentality reigns in these settings.

Of course prisoners sometimes lie, and they often view the authorities as opponents. That is part of why they are locked up to begin with. That doesn’t mean that society should lower itself to their level though. We are supposed to be better than that.