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Seven NC prison workers lose jobs over inmate's death

By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 09--Seven state prison employees have lost their jobs as a result of an internal investigation into the death of a mentally ill and disabled inmate last month.

A captain and four nurses have been fired, and a psychologist and another nurse have resigned. Other employees at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville are still being interviewed, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Authorities are trying to find out what led to the death of Michael Anthony Kerr when he was transported by prison van from Alexander County in the western part of the state to Central Prison in Raleigh for medical attention on the morning of March 12. Kerr was unresponsive when he arrived at Central and could not be resuscitated.

Kerr, 53, had significant mental illness and medical disabilities, according to an advocacy group for the disabled. He was serving a sentence of up to nearly 32 years as a habitual felon, and had a criminal record dating back to at least 1995, mostly for larceny and breaking-and-entering convictions.

He was sent to the Alexander prison in 2011, after being convicted of discharging a firearm into occupied property. Kerr shot into a house in the Garland community of Sampson County where one of his sons lived, and into the house of a neighbor whose cousin had been convicted of murdering his other son, court records show.

Leading up to his death, Kerr had been in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons for 45 days.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker said she couldn't discuss what might have occurred between Kerr and prison staff, what medical attention he required at Central Prison, nor why he was taken the 165 miles to Raleigh instead of to a closer hospital. For example, Caldwell Memorial in Lenoir is about 25 miles away. Charlotte is 65 miles from the prison.

"We have a very intensive investigation going on because it's a very serious matter to us and we want to try to get to the bottom of what may have happened as quickly as possible," Walker said. "We don't want to compromise the investigation."

Central Prison is the state's main facility for medical and mental health treatment, but the Alexander Correctional facility also has some of both services.

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No signs of trauma

The state government's Capitol Police investigated, and said in a March 12 report that there were no signs of injury to the prisoner. Preliminary examination by the state medical examiner's office indicated no signs of trauma, Walker said.

"Early indication is there was no physical confrontation with anyone," Walker said.

The state doesn't have a specific policy that addresses when a prisoner should be taken to Central Prison instead of a closer hospital, Walker said. Prison officials are expected to get direction from medical and mental health staff, either on site or on the phone, she said.

The five employees who were dismissed were identified as: Shawn Blackburn, a captain; Jacqueline Clark, nurse supervisor; Brenda Sigman, nurse; Wanda St. Clair, nurse; and Kimberly Towery, nurse. Christine Butler, a staff psychologist, and Lisa Kemp, a nurse, resigned. Attempts to reach the employees were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

There are ongoing investigations by the public safety department, the State Bureau of Investigation and Disability Rights North Carolina, which has federal authority to look into the deaths and treatment of people with disabilities while they are in prisons or other state-operated facilities. Walker said the state has brought in additional staff to keep the Alexander prison running normally while its staff members are interviewed.

Sister had concerns

Kerr's sister, Brenda Liles, told The Sampson Independent newspaper recently that she had called state prison officials several times before his death to express concern that her brother wasn't receiving the psychological help he needed. She was worried he was becoming increasingly depressed. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

According to the Department of Public Safety, a team of department managers -- representing mental health, medical, nursing, risk management and security services -- reviewed Kerr's death and how he was treated while a prisoner. Department Secretary Frank Perry then ordered an internal investigation and asked the SBI to look at what happened.

On March 31, Disability Rights notified the department by letter that it had learned of Kerr's death, and said he had "significant" mental health and medical disabilities. The organization asked the public safety agency to preserve any videos and other evidence that might be related to what happened, and asked for a meeting on what steps the state was taking to investigate. The department consented to the meeting.

As the state's designated protection and advocacy agency under federal law, Disabilty Rights N.C. has access to prisoners and some records if it receives a complaint or the prisoner is a client.

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Vicki Smith, executive director of the organization, said this week that the purpose of its investigations is to encourage caretakers to develop better protections for those with disabilities. Her staff will look at whether there was a problem confined to Alexander or if there's a statewide problem.

"Each case is different," Smith said. "It might look simple but when you peel away the layers it isn't. Or it might look complicated but turns out to be simple."

Researcher Teresa Leonard contributed.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO


(c)2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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