Death of Mentally Ill Inmate Triggers Investigation of N.C. Prisons

Death of Inmate Raises Questions About Mental Health

On March 12, 2014, Michael Anthony Kerr, aged 54, died of dehydration while being kept in solitary confinement in Central Prison in Raleigh, NC. Kerr had just a day or so prior been transferred to Central Prison after being imprisoned at Alexander Correctional Institution. Federal authorities have launched an investigation into Kerr’s death. Kerr had a lengthy history of mental illness and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, although he was not actively receiving treatment for his disorder at the time of his death. He had spent at least 35 consecutive days in solitary confinement. Unfortunately, placement into administrative segregation is a common tactic for dealing with mentally unstable inmates, and in the case of Mr. Kerr, it may have led to his demise.

Kerr had an extensive criminal record which included everything from property crimes like breaking & entering and larceny, to violent crimes like assault on a female. In 2011, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison as a habitual felon for possessing a firearm as a felon. Yet Kerr’s family has also noted that he was a U.S. Army veteran who was deeply religious, a man battered by the twin specters of mental illness and personal tragedy in the form of the deaths of two of his sons. Nobody is arguing that Kerr was an angel, but he wasn’t a hardened, unfeeling thug either.

Dr. Susan E. Venuti of the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office was able to read an internal prison report on Kerr’s death, but was unable to determine whether Kerr’s death from dehydration was natural, accidental, or homicide. Nor was Dr. Venuti able to make copies of the report. We are still no closer to an explanation as to why Michael Anthony Kerr passed away, and the North Carolina Department of Corrections is not being forthcoming to the public about the information they have. The only thing that is certain is that the circumstances surrounding Kerr’s death are suspicious. To quote from the manual that governs policy and procedure within the correctional facility, “Whenever an inmate misuses the plumbing facilities in his or her cell, the officer in charge may order that the water to the cell be cut off.” Records show that Kerr had been cited for intentionally flooding his cell twice on February 21st and 24th, 2014. Kerr may have died from having fluids withheld from him as punishment, or because of a deliberate refusal on his part to consume liquids – we don’t know which, because even more than six months after Kerr’s death, the Department of Corrections isn’t releasing details to the public.

As we have previously reported here on our blog, untreated or undertreated mental illness substantially raises the likelihood that an individual will end up as a defendant in the criminal justice system. There is also a significant lack of mental health resources behind bars – a 2012 report on the North Carolina Department of Corrections found that almost three-quarters of positions for senior psychologists within the correctional system were unfilled. The lack of mental health personnel is pervasive in both state prison facilities and county jails, and jail and prison employees are not always trained in how to effectively deal with mentally ill inmates. So far, seven employees at the Alexander Correctional facility in Taylorsville, NC have resigned or been fired since Kerr’s death. Outside consultants have been brought in to evaluate the mental health operations in place in the state prison system, and the Department of Corrections as a whole seems poised to undergo a potentially positive transformation. However, this comes far too late to help Mr. Kerr.

Prison isn’t supposed to be pleasant – it is designed as a punishment. As a society, however, it is important for us to remember that by choosing to employ incarceration to deal with criminal offenders, we assume certain responsibilities with regards to their health and well-being. If we are going to put someone in a cage for years, they deserve to have their basic needs met, regardless of what they did to end up in that situation. Locking someone up in solitary confinement and not giving them adequate treatment for a mental illness is negligence at best and pure cruelty at worst. Michael Anthony Kerr was sentenced to prison for his crimes, not given the death penalty, but there is a good chance that the actions of correctional personnel resulted in his demise. If it is revealed that Kerr died because of failures of prison staff, we might as well have strapped him to a gurney and given him a lethal injection. As the investigation into Kerr’s death continues, I can only hope that it will result in far-reaching changes to how North Carolina deals with mentally ill inmates. The possibility of another person dying in the same manner as Kerr on our watch doesn’t bear thinking about.