What happened to Kelly Coltrain? Just another death in Nevada’s jail system

Kelly Coltrain

On July 23, 2017, 27-year-old Kelly Coltrain was “found” dead on the floor of her cell in the Mineral County Jail, in Hawthorne, Nevada. This week, two years later, her family won a $2 million settlement and an agreement that a Federal judge would monitor the jail for the next four years. The family’s attorney noted that the federal monitoring was more important to the family than the money: “If we accepted just money, there was no guaranteeing that future situations for other prisoners would not occur and future tragedies would be around the corner.” What happened to Kelly Coltrain in the Mineral County Jail? The routine torture of women in jails across the country. Here’s a very partial list of women who have died in jails in the past few years, women whose death we have attempted to memorialize: Chuneice Patterson, Onondaga County Justice Center, New York, 2010; Amy Lynn Cowling, Gregg County Jail, Texas, 2010; Christina Tahhahwah, Lawton, Oklahoma, 2014; Madaline Christine Pitkin, Washington County Jail, Oregon, 2014;  Natasha McKenna, Fairfax County Jail, Virginia, 2015; Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Brown County Jail, South Dakota, 2015; Joyce Curnell, Charleston County Jail, South Carolina, 2015; Kellsie Green, Anchorage Correctional Complex, Alaska, 2016; Madison Jensen, Duchesne County Jail, Utah, 2016; Brianna Beland, Charleston County Jail, South Caroline, 2017. Add Kelly Coltrain to this list. Every one of these women died in agony, screaming and begging for care.

Kelly Coltrain, from Austin, Texas, was on her way to her grandmother’s 75th birthday celebration, in Reno, Nevada. Kelly Coltrain was stopped, in Hawthorne, Nevada, for speeding, and police found she had unpaid traffic or parking tickets. Kelly Coltrain had no criminal record. Bail was set at $1750, and so Kelly Coltrain sat in the Mineral County Jail. She told the staff she was drug-dependent, suffered from seizures, and would need medical assistance. The staff refused. Mineral County Jail is across the street from a hospital. The staff refused. Kelly Coltrain vomited repeatedly, refused to eat, trembled or lay perfectly still. The staff watched on video and refused to help. At some point, a staff member brought Kelly Coltrain a mop and told her to clean up the mess. Less than an hour later, Kelly Coltrain died, in a seizure. Kelly Coltrain lay, dead, on the floor for six hours. Finally, a staff member walked in, found Kelly Coltrain cold and inert on the floor, nudged her with his boot, went out, called his sergeant. Kelly Coltrain lay on the floor for another four hours. The staff did not call a paramedic. Kelly Coltrain lay cold, inert, in a fetal position on the floor and “nobody called for medical assistance.” 

Kelly Coltrain did not die nor was she “found” dead. She was murdered. The staff did not “fail” to pay attention or to care for Kelly Coltrain. The staff refused to pay attention, refused to care for Kelly Coltrain. Kelly Coltrain’s death was preventable, avoidable and foretold. Staff refused to listen, see, monitor, engage, respond, care. Staff refused to follow directives and procedures, as they had so many times before, without consequence, and so many jail staffs across the country do every day, especially if the incarcerated person is a woman, a woman of color, a working poor woman; a women living with mental health illness, addiction, or pretty much anything, and the list goes on.

How did the local authorities initially respond to Kelly Coltrain’s death: “It’s just really difficult for a small rural county like this to handle what is just a massive problem. There are so many people addicted to substances who end up going through withdrawal in the jail.” It was Kelly Coltrain’s fault. She shouldn’t have ended up in a small rural county jail. It was Kelly Coltrain’s fault. She should have known better. What if Kelly Coltrain’s family hadn’t persisted? Who would have known? Our Great Refusal is built of an infinite number of grimy little refusals, and meanwhile, in jails across the country, women in agony beg and scream for help, then lie in fetal positions on cold cell floors. When they are finally found, they receive the toe of a boot, and nobody calls for medical assistance.

Kelly Coltrain

(Photo Credit 1: CNN) (Photo Credit 2: Reno Gazette Journal)

We want our revolution NOW

 

In many parts of the world, prisons have become the principal sites for people living with mental illnesses. In the United States, jails and prisons increasingly house the mentally ill. It is estimated that, in the United States, for every person living with severe mental illness in hospital, there are three currently in prison or jail. In Arizona and Nevada, the number is ten mentally ill people in prison and jail for every one in hospital. For women, the numbers are worse yet. For women living with mental illness in the United States, prison is the new pink. The final coup de grace is when the inmates living with mental illness are described as putting a strain on the prison system. It’s their fault … of course. The same story occurs elsewhere. In Canada, for example, mentally ill prisoners are said to flood the system. Apparently, this is what democracy looks like.

But what happens when people living with mental illness end up in prison? What exactly is their treatment `protocol’? Too often, it’s long term solitary confinement. Colorado may be the solitary confinement capital of the world. In Colorado, it’s customary to lock up mentally ill patients … for their own good. Of those in solitary confinement, it’s estimated that four out of every ten is living with developmental disability or with mental illness. Despite that arithmetic, reformers have yet again failed to persuade the Colorado legislature that perhaps, just maybe, another prison is possible. The madness continues.

Mary Braswell knows something about this form of State, and corporate, madness. Braswell is grandmother to Frank D. Horton. She is also his `conservator’, or legal guardian. Frank Horton is an African American adult living with mental illness, who has had a number of run-ins with the law. At one point, he missed his parole appointment, and so was taken to prison, specifically to the Metro Nashville Detention Facility, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. That’s when things went from bad to worse to near fatal.

According to Horton’s attorneys, his intake papers suggested a history of psychological and mental illness, with a likelihood of schizophrenia. The system `recognized’ the symptoms. And so what happened? Horton was put in general population, where, within a month, he started fighting, or attacked, his cell mate, and was placed in solitary. His cell mate said Horton was hearing voices.

Once in solitary, not surprisingly, Horton’s condition deteriorated … rapidly. He began refusing to leave solitary. Soon, he was allowed to stay in solitary, permanently. This meant nine months without a bath or shower, nine months with no one cleaning his cell. Nine months.

Nine months of guards walking past, knocking the door, asking if he was still alive, and then moving on. Nine months.

Finally, in January 2008, a guard, Patrick Perry, realized what was happening, stepped in and informed the Metro Public Health Department: “Patrick Perry, an officer at the detention facility from August 2006 to January 2008, began to notice that something was wrong late in 2007. In January 2008, Perry attempted to communicate with Horton, but Horton was speaking “gibberish.” Perry testified that Horton’s cell was filthy, that there were several food trays on the floor and bacteria growing in the toilet, that Horton’s beard and hair were “matted” and “out of control,” and that it appeared Horton had not washed himself or had his cell cleaned for months.”

For nine months, Frank Horton was left to live, or die, in filth that grew worse and worse, until, for some, he became indistinguishable from his surroundings.

Frank Horton was removed to a special facility in April 2008. Patrick Perry was fired immediately, on that day in January. Horton’s grandmother, Mary Braswell, has struggled for three years to get some kind of accountability, some element of responsibility, for the abuse into which her grandson was dumped. Two weeks ago, at last, she was given permission to proceed. CCA, no doubt, will appeal that decision.

On one hand, Frank Horton’s story is a common one, and sadly so is that of Mary Braswell, the story of prisoners living with mental illnesses and of the women, grandmothers, mothers, who try to care for them. At the same time, the story of prison driving people into deeper mental illness is also all too common. Young women and men, largely of color and largely low- to no-income, enter into prison, and when they come out, their minds are never the same.

And they call it democracy, this universe of systematic deprivation and devastation of minds and bodies. Rather call it Charenton, the Bedlam where the patients sing: “We’ve got Human Rights, we’ve got the right to starve; we’ve got jobs waiting for work; we’ve got Brotherhood, we’re all covered with lice; we’ve got Equality, we’re equal to die like dogs ….

“Marat, we’re poor, and the poor stay poor.
We want our rights and we don’t care how.
We want our revolution NOW”.

 

(Image Credit: Goldberg & Osborne)