What happened to Brianna Beland? Just another death in the Charleston County Jail

Brianna Beland

In August 2017, 31-year-old Brianna Beland “died” in the Charleston County Jail, the same jail in which Joyce Curnell “died”, in July 2015. What happened to Brianna Beland? The same thing that happened to Kellsie Green, in Alaska; Jessica DiCesare, in Massachusetts; Madaline Christine Pitkin, in Oregon, and so many other drug dependent women who needed help and got jail. Brianna Beland is just another day in the life of the cruel and usual treatment of women in jails across the United States, where women go to jail and die.

The story of Brianna Beland’s death is almost as short as her life. In April 2017, Brianna Beland was arrested for shoplifting a pack of coloring pens, worth $3.94. Brianna Beland had no previous convictions. She did have a debilitating heroin habit. She also had a four-year-old daughter and a partner. Brianna Beland was given a May court date, which she missed. Her partner died in June “while fishing off the coast of Virginia.” Brianna Beland worked cleaning vacation rentals and was studying to become a paralegal. On Monday August 14, she was picked up on a bench warrant and given a choice of 25 days in jail or paying a fine of $1,030. Brianna Beland “chose” jail. On August 16, Brianna Beland started vomiting and feeling nauseous. On August 17, she passed out in the yard. On August 18, Brianna Beland was moved to the infirmary. Brianna Beland kept falling out of bed; she couldn’t walk or move. She said she felt that she was burning up and asked for help. The nurse left Brianna Beland to attend to other patients “because it took priority over a patient being hot.” The nurse returned an hour or so later, and “found” Brianna Beland “unresponsive”. On August 19, a little while after midnight, Brianna Beland was pronounced dead. In December 2018, her family sued the Charleston County Jail, the doctor, and the medical service.

Brianna Beland’s story mirrors that of Joyce Curnell, who also “died” in the Charleston County Jail two years earlier. Joyce Curnell also was arrested for shoplifting, also had no prior record, also was picked up on a bench warrant. Given the “choice” between jail or paying $2200, Joyce Curnell chose to pay, monthly. She couldn’t keep up the payments, and so “chose” jail. Joyce Curnell struggled with alcoholism. Her son believed that in jail Joyce Curnell would get help.  Joyce Curnell went into the jail, vomited time after time, told the staff she needed help, was given a garbage bag, and, within 27 hours of entering the jail, was “found” dead.

Both Brianna Beland and Joyce Curnell lived in trailers. For working poor women, and especially those who live and struggle with alcohol and drug addiction as well as with mental health issues, the contemporary architecture of the United States is simple and direct: take a trailer, overlay it with a jail, and overlay the two of them with a graveyard. The families sue, and generally win, but there’s neither justice nor peace nor resolution therein. There is no justice nor peace in a land in which a woman life is worth the same as a $3.94 pack of coloring pens.

(Photo Credit: Live5News)

South Carolina built a special hell for those living with mental illness: prison

South Carolina’s prisons and jails are overcrowded, under-resourced, and toxic. People, like Joyce Curnell, regularly die in agony, begging for help. Jails are fatally overcrowded. For example, the Pickens County Jail, built for maximum 91 prisoners, currently holds close to 200. South Carolina’s prisons and jails are bad, but for those living with mental illness, the prisons and jails are absolutely infernal. They are described as negligent, outrageous, abusive, where cruel becomes usual, appalling and worse. People living with mental illness spend years in solitary confinement, engaging in self-harm, and scores have died in agony, begging for help. Finally, after twelve years of struggle, this might just change, thanks to prisoners themselves and to Protection and Advocacy for People Living with Disability.

In 2002, Protection and Advocacy and the Death Penalty Resources Center approached a prominent South Carolina law firm and asked for help concerning the systemic abuse of prisoners living with mental illnesses. The lawyers took on the case. In 2005, three inmates – T.R., P.R. and K.W. – and Protection and Advocacy sued the South Carolina Department of Corrections and its director, William R. Byars, Jr. They laid out a horror story of abuse, neglect, mayhem, torture, pain, suffering, and death. The details were horrifying as was the scale. In 2012, the case went to trial. In 2014, Judge Michael Baxley ruled decisively against the State. He opened his remarks noting, “It has been the privilege of this writer to serve the State of South Carolina as a general jurisdiction judge for fourteen years. At the time this case was heard, Court Administration reported there were more than 5,000 new case filings per year for each of our state’s circuit court judges. Thus, over 70,000 cases of every imaginable sort have come to this Court over the years. This case, far above all others, is the most troubling … The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.”

Judge Baxley handed down his decision January 2014. South Carolina immediately leapt to the defense of its clearly abusive and troubling treatment of those living with mental illness. Meanwhile, self injury and harm continued unabated. A year later, in January 2015, an agreement between the parties was reported, but that proved not to be the case. Finally, this week, a final agreement – with real goals, timelines, independent checks and assessments, and a budget – was signed.

South Carolina built a special hell for those living with mental illnesses. Its ratio of mentally ill in prison or jail to mentally ill in hospital is 5.1 to 1, one of the worst in the country. South Carolina is near the bottom of state rankings when it comes to “availability of public psychiatric beds, efforts to divert mentally ill individuals, per capita state mental health expenditures, and almost every other measure of treatment for mentally ill individuals.” Furthermore, when it comes to investing in prisoner healthcare, it’s the second worst state in the country. Only Oklahoma is worse.

For decades South Carolina has tortured people living with mental illnesses. It was State public policy, everyone knew. Everyone knew that seriously mentally ill people were sent to solitary more than others, and everyone knew that they stayed in solitary for much longer. Judge Baxley wrote repeatedly that the State was aware of what was happening under and within its administration. This torture was public knowledge, and so the question lingers, “What is that public?” Why does it take spectacular deaths for us to acknowledge the torture we already knows? Why does it take heroic struggles that last for years for us to say that we cannot torture people because they live with mental illnesses? Who are we who know and then turn away? Who are we? This case, far above all others, is the most troubling.

 

(Image Credit: The Atlantic)

What happened to Joyce Curnell? #SayHerName

Joyce Curnell

Last July, Joyce Curnell, a 50-year-old Black woman, died of dehydration in the Charleston County jail, in South Carolina. In her death, she joined Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Ralkina Jones and Raynette Turner: five Black women who died in one month in jails across the country. In her death, she also joined Kellsie Green, whose family called the police to arrest her because she needed help and there was no other help locally available. Joyce Curnell is the latest headstone to be placed alongside the highway of women missing and murdered by the State.

On July 21, Joyce Curnell went into hospital with severe stomach pains. She was diagnosed with gastroenteritis. When she was discharged, the local police picked her up on an outstanding warrant. Joyce Curnell’s son, Javon Curnell, had call the police and told them of his mother’s location and outstanding warrant. Joyce Curnell was struggling with alcoholism, and her children thought that the jail would provide her with the help she couldn’t anywhere else: “She’s my mom, but I’m trying to help her. She won’t listen, she drinks a lot. She needs some time to detox herself.” Javon Curnell saw only two choices for his mother: jail or the graveyard.

At the hospital, Joyce Curnell was hydrated, given medications and told to seek medical help if she had any more pain or vomiting. No one at the Charleston County jail did anything to address her pain. Joyce Curnell spent the night wracked with pain and vomiting. Guards brought her a trash bag to vomit into. No one moved her to any medical facility. Joyce Curnell grew too weak to go to the bathroom. In the morning she was too weak to eat and continued vomiting. No one gave her any water or helped in any other way. Medical staff “checked” her around 3 pm, and did nothing. By 5 pm, Joyce Curnell was dead. There was no failure here, but rather deliberate and lethal refusal.

The family is suing the Carolina Center for Occupational Health, which provide “health care” at the jail. As the family’s attorney explained, “This is not a situation in which Joyce needed access to cutting edge medical care to save her life. She needed fluids and the attention of a doctor. Not only has nobody been prosecuted in connection with Joyce’s death, it does not appear that any employee has even been reprimanded … You don’t need a medical license to administer Gatorade. At some point, she would have needed more than simple hydration, but early on, it probably would have worked.”

Who killed Joyce Curnell? Everyone. As has happened so often before in similar circumstances, the autopsy concluded that Joyce Curnell’s death was “natural.” What nature is that? The fault here is not in the stars but in ourselves, in our collusion with murders that, taken together, comprise a massacre. Where is the sustained outrage? The Curnell family sued the health contractors on Wednesday, and by today, the following Monday, the world has moved on, and Joyce Curnell, who died in agony, begging for help, for a drop of water, is dead.

 

(Photo Credit: The Post and Courier)

Turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe. Do it now!

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If you live in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, California, or Washington, you might live near Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. That’s right. From sea to shining sea, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, Jefferson Davis is “honored” and, presumably, you are honored to drive in his memory.

In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy designed, planned and sponsored the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway system, which was to extend from Washington, DC, to San Diego. Their plan was to overlay the Confederacy onto the map of the United States, an ocean-to-ocean highway that would compete with the Lincoln Highway. While the coordinated highway system no longer exists, in each of the states mentioned above, parts of it survive, and under the name Jefferson Davis Highway.

In 2002, when Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee proposed changing the name of Washington’s Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, he ran into a whirlwind of opposition, because nothing says the Pacific Northwest like … the Confederacy and the war to preserve slavery. As Dunshee noted, “People are saying, ‘Oh, Jeff Davis was into roads for the Northwest.’ That’s their cover. But let’s be clear. This memorial was not put up by the AAA. It was put up to glorify the Confederacy.” The president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy weighed in, complaining that the change would “cause more hard feelings and certainly will not unify our country.”

When Dunshee first discovered the presence of the Confederacy in his home state, he said, “I was astonished that it was there. And then I was disgusted.” Disgust is a good response. Dunshee’s disgust only deepened, once he received calls telling him “to go back to Africa and take all of his kind with him.” Hans Dunshee’s “kind” would be German and Irish.

Nine years later, in 2011, in Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington County Board renamed a part called the Old Jefferson Davis Highway. It’s now the Long Bridge Drive. Why the name change? As then-County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman explained, “I have a problem with ‘Jefferson Davis’ [in the road’s name]. There are aspects of our history I’m not particularly interested in celebrating.”

While the “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” was part of the original Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, it wasn’t included in the Commonwealth’s 1922 designation of the Jefferson Davis Highway, and so Arlington County could change the name, once it convinced opponents that perhaps the real “importance of history” is not its repetition but rather its analysis and critique.

Meanwhile, the rest of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in Virginia falls under the Commonwealth administration, and so any change there must go through Richmond.

The lesson of history has to be that people can change their histories and themselves for the better; that we don’t happen upon progress, we make progress happen. From Washington, DC, to Charleston to Washington State, make freedom ring. Move from astonishment to disgust to astonishment. Tear down the flag; rewrite the name. In Virginia, turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe, a proud son of Virginia of whom we are all proud. Do it now. It’s the least we can do.

 

(`Jeff Davis’ Photo Credit: author’s photo) (Arthur Ashe Photo Credit: Charles Tasnadi / Associated Press)

White fear of Black success

White people kill Black people because they’re doing things right, not despite that.  That’s the problem, you see.  We can’t have that.

Black people who start hot meal programs for the people in their communities – we can’t have that.  Black people who attend church every week – we can’t have that.  Black people so carefree they spend time together at the pool – nope, that’s not gonna work.

When you have to be afraid to simply be in the world—to be with your friends, to buy candy, to look at toys, to worship, to walk—you’re living in terror.  People who stare that terror in the face and live anyway, and thrive anyway, and help anyway, those are the people whites fear the most.

The terrorist massacre in Charleston occurred about 100 miles away from an area in South Carolina where, in 1862, Union Army General Ormsby Mitchel ordered that a town for freed Blacks be created.  The town, which came to be called Mitchelville, was designed as an experiment to demonstrate to white people whether African Americans were capable of organizing and governing themselves after emancipation.

This was all explained to my family and me by a Gullah man named Emory Campbell when we visited the area three years ago.  It will not surprise you to learn that the town thrived.  The “experiment” worked, and the 1500 African Americans who lived there succeeded in establishing farming collectives, stores, a government, a school (along with laws about compulsory education), and a church.

And that was the problem.  According to Campbell, the town was set on fire – not unlike other Southern towns along the coast, from Charleston to Florida, that had been ordered by Union Army General William Sherman to be settled by freed Blacks for farming.  Mr. Campbell showed us the only material remains of Mitchelville, South Carolina:  some bricks from the church the community built.

Success is a damnable thing for Blacks.  Some forms of social organization (such as mass incarceration and residential segregation) are meant to stifle such success.  But when people achieve success anyway, well, we’ve got to put a stop to that, don’t we?

 

(Photo Credit: WoodandPartners.com)

Youth has constitutional significance: Ending life without parole

Sharon Wiggins died last year. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. This means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world. It’s the Pennsylvania way.

South Carolina has a better way.

A couple weeks ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court took the United States another step towards ending life without parole, LWOP, for those convicted of having committed crimes while juveniles. The Court’s decision in Aiken et al v Byar has been described as “notable for its breadth” and “groundbreaking.” It could be.

Fifteen South Carolina prisoners, including Jennifer L. McSharry, petitioned the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of their having been sentenced to life without parole, to death-in-life, when they were children. The Court largely agreed with the fifteen, arguing, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The Court’s judgment is based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision built on, and expanded, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v Florida, which found that life without parole for juveniles who had not committed murder was unconstitutional. Each decision has expanded the space for decency, common sense, and humanity, and these from a Court not renowned for any of those qualities.

The South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide on whether Miller v Alabama was retroactive. That is, if it’s wrong today, does that mean it was wrong before we came to our senses? The Court answered decidedly Yes: “We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively. The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants— juveniles—from specific punishment—life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

Sentences have consequences, and they too must be subjected to at least a constitutional review. There’s more to the South Carolina decision, and it all expands the application of Miller v Alabama. Would that earlier courts had decided that perhaps the impact of punishment should be thrown into the equation, rather than rely on mandatory sentences. Would that earlier courts had decided, and long ago, against a system that cared more waging a war on this and a war on that than it cared about the actual individuals and whole populations thrown into increasingly overcrowded, underfunded, toxic environments. Would that all of this had never had to come to courts at all.

Would that this had all happened long before Sharon Wiggins ever entered prison. Since 2008, the number of women sentenced to life without parole has risen precipitously, and who are they? “Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood.” They are the abandoned, the sacrificed. But the end may be near. For Jennifer L. McSharry in South Carolina and thousands of women across the land, a change could be coming. They stand a chance, a bare chance, of not becoming another such sacrifice.

 

(Photo Credit: TakePart.com)