Haunts: Prisoners die in agony, begging and screaming for care

Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive on Christmas Eve, 2010. 33 years old, a grandmother of a one-day old child, bipolar, methadone dependent, and with only one kidney, Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive in East Texas, where she was picked up for speeding, then arrested for some outstanding warrants on minor theft charges and traffic violations. Five days later, in the Gregg County Jail, after a day of wailing and seizures, of excruciating pain and suffering, of agony, Amy Lynn Cowling died. Amy Lynn Cowling died after five days of her family begging and pleading with the prison staff to make sure they gave her the life sustaining medicines she needed. The pills were just down the hall, in Amy Lynn Cowling’s purse, in the jail storage room. Nobody went, nobody came. Amy Lynn Cowling died.

Gregg County Jail is `troubled’. Since 2005, nine prisoners have died there, one of suicide, eight from `health conditions.’ Prisoners are dying, and prisoners are coming out hurt and injured. Across the country and across the world. Some suggest that Amy Lynn Cowling’s death `exposes health care problems in local jails.’ History suggests otherwise.

Ashley Ellis was twenty-one years old when she went for a drive one night, in 2007, in Rutland, Vermont. She hit a motorcycle and partially paralyzed its driver. Two years later, she was convicted of misdemeanor negligence. Ellis was sent to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont.

In the two years between the accident and the sentencing, Ellis had gone from120 pounds to 86. She was depressed. She was under treatment for anorexia. This treatment required her to take regular potassium pills. She told the staff at the prison. Ellis’s doctor faxed the prison all the necessary information concerning her illness and treatment. At that time, the prison health services were outsourced to a private corporation, Prison Health Services, or PHS.

Ashley Ellis told the Prison Health Service staff that she needed the potassium pills, to live. They said they were out, they give her food, they did not provide the pills. After two days in prison, Ashley Ellis died. That was August 2009. In January 2010 Vermont suspended its contract with Prison Health Service, because the contract had `expired’. Prison Health Service advised its employees not to speak to anyone. The investigation went nowhere.

The medical examiner found that Ashley Ellis had died in part because of denial of access to medication. As we noted last year, a similar case occurred in New York, at about the same time. Chuneice Patterson, a prisoner in the Onondaga County Justice Center, in Syracuse, New York, screamed, writhed for nine hours in pain before dying of an ectopic pregnancy. She pressed the emergency button. Nobody came.

The New York State Commission of Correction concluded: “Chuneice Patterson was a twenty-one year old black woman who died on 11/12/09 at 8:30 a.m. from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while in the custody of the Onondaga County Sherriff at the Onondaga County Justice Center….Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

It’s too soon to say the exact cause of death for Amy Lynn Cowling. It’s too late to claim that another women dying in prison exposes anything. As attorney, prison expert and University of Texas faculty member Michele Deitch notes, “Until it affects a family like this, no one knows how bad things are.” As long as incarceration means isolation, as long as prison is a form of exile within the borders of one’s own state, as long as prisoners are invisible to `citizens’, they will continue to die in agony, begging and screaming for care.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com