Kentucky Prison Doctor Fired After Hunger Striking Prisoner Starves to Death

George Lavender

The Kentucky State Penitentiary, in Eddyville, where James Kenneth Embry died in January

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A prison doctor has been fired after a hunger striking prisoner starved to death at the Kentucky State Penitentiary. James Kenneth Embry died in January 2014 after refusing an estimated 35 out of 36 of his most recent meals. According to the Associated Press, in some cases corrections staff in Kentucky either did not understand the prisons’ policies for dealing with hunger strikes, or were told to ignore them. Two other staff members from the maximum security prison are also in the process of being dismissed.

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 the spring of 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 refused most of his meals. By the time of his death in January 2014, he had shed more than 30lb on his 6ft frame and died weighing just 138lb, according to documents reviewed by the AP.

An internal investigation determined that medical personnel failed to provide anti-anxiety 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, Kentucky attorney who specialises in inmate rights litigation and reviewed some of the documents obtained by the AP. How do you just watch a man starve to death?”

According to the report of the internal investigation, Embry stopped taking medications for anxiety in May 2013. Seven months later, he told the lead prison psychologist, Jean Hinkebein, on 3 December that he felt anxious and paranoid and wanted to restart those medications. But the psychologist concluded Embry didn’t have any significant mental health issues, even though Embry repeatedly talked about wanting to hurt himself. Hinkebein and an associate considered his comments vague, and his request for medication was denied.

Seven days later, Embry began banging his head on his cell door and was moved to an observation cell where he refused meals and told the prison psychologist: I don’t have any hope.”

He soon began refusing most food, though he drank tea on occasion while continuing to make threats to hurt himself in the ensuing weeks.

A nurse checked on Embry on 4 January, finding him weak and shaky, and advised him to resume eating. Embry responded that it had been too long for him to start taking food again. Nine days later, on the day he died, an advanced practice registered nurse named Bob Wilkinson refused a request from other medical staffers to move Embry to the infirmary at 11.51am and said the inmate should be taken off a hunger strike watch, according to the internal investigative report. Guards found Embry unresponsive in his cell hours later, his head slumped to the side. He was pronounced dead at 5.29pm.

Lyon County coroner Ronnie Patton classified Embry’s death as a suicide and listed dehydration as the primary cause of death, with starvation and several other medical ailments as secondary causes.

The documents obtained by the AP 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.

On 16 January, three days after Embry’s death, Steve Hiland, the lead physician at the maximum-security prison, signed off on a nurse’s note about Embry consistently refusing food and being taken off of the hunger-strike watch because he drank tea. During the internal investigation, Hiland said he believed a hunger strike consisted of missing six or eight meals” and ended when the inmate ate or drank anything at all.

In a revealing exchange, investigators asked Hiland how he thought inmates were supposed to be removed from a hunger strike. Hiland told them that prison staff usually don’t have to worry about it because they [the inmates] eventually give up. Continue reading…

Embry’s death follows high-profile hunger strikes by prisoners in several states, and use of the tactic is common in prisons throughout the US. As reported here at The Prison Complex, the ways in which corrections departments respond to these protests varies, with some resorting to forced-feeding. Even the official definition of a hunger strike changes depending on which state the prison is in. In California, a prisoner is recognized as being on hunger strike after refusing nine consecutive meals, but inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections are treated as being on hunger strike if they declare that they are. 

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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