The sister of a mentally ill inmate who died of thirst in March 2014 after being held in solitary confinement for 35 days, said she is contented in the conclusion of her long fight for her brother — one she feels will result in better treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
The N.C. Department of Public Safety earlier this week announced its Division of Adult Correction had reached a $2.5 million settlement with the estate of Michael Anthony Kerr, a Sampson County native who died March 12, 2014.
“I’m well pleased with the outcome … I’m well pleased,” said Kerr’s sister Brenda Liles, who talked with The Independent this week following the state’s announcement. “Fighting for my brother wasn’t in vain.”
Kerr was found unresponsive in the back of a prison van after being driven three hours from the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, where he was being incarcerated, to a mental hospital at Raleigh’s Central Prison. Records show the 53-year-old inmate was twice cited for violations by prison staff for flooding his cell weeks before his death.
An autopsy determined Kerr died of dehydration and was receiving no treatment for his schizophrenia.
The most outspoken in the weeks and months following Kerr’s death was Liles, who publicly questioned the state prison system for the mistreatment and neglect of her brother. She tried in vain to get someone to help her brother in the week before he died, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“They’ve all got blood on their hands as far as I’m concerned,” Liles said in an April 2014 interview with The Independent. “I tried to get my brother help. They didn’t do what they said they were going to do, and he’s dead because of it.”
She said Kerr spent his last few days at the facility in solitary confinement, alone and in mental anguish, with no one paying much, if any, attention to his needs. This week, Liles again recounted her repeated phone calls to prison officials in the days before her brother’s death trying to get him medical help. She said her brother had been struggling with mental issues since two of his sons were shot to death in separate incidents in recent years.
“I was begging and pleading to them for my brother to get help,” she said. “On the 12th, he was dead. I was still fighting and working (after that). They thought at the Correctional Institution (in Taylorsville) that March 12 would be the end of it, that they weren’t going to hear Michael Anthony Kerr’s name again.”
Liles ensured that was not the case.
In the weeks that followed his death, the N.C. Department of Public Safety fired a captain and four nurses at Alexander Correctional Institution. Another nurse and a staff psychologist resigned.
Liles and her brothers, including Kerr, were raised in Ivanhoe. Kerr began to have run-ins with the law in 1995, according to court records. She knows her brother had a checkered past, but “blood is thicker than water,” she attested.
The N.C. Department of Public Safety website notes Kerr’s criminal record included numerous convictions for breaking and entering and larceny in Sampson and Bladen counties. He was sentenced in 2011 to serve 31 years as a habitual felon after being charged with illegally possessing and discharging a firearm stemming from an incident in which he fired nine shots into a house in October 2008.
North Carolina’s prison system has long faced criticism for its treatment of inmates with chronic mental illnesses. Liles said she hopes her brother’s case can be a catalyst for change. He was not perfect, she said, but he did not deserve the poor treatment he received.
“I’m well pleased that by me working and pleading for my brother that it wasn’t in vain. A lot of the prisoners are mistreated by the guards, psychiatrists and nurses,” Liles stated. “I think they will be treated better now, like they are human beings.”
According to the AP, pathologist Dr. Lauren Scott noted in the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office report, a senior prison official allowed a “witnessed review” of an internal review into Kerr’s death, though the medical examiner’s office was not permitted to keep a copy. Scott wrote that the report left unanswered key details about the circumstances leading to Kerr’s death, including when the inmate last had access to food and water.
Because of the lack of information, the pathologist wrote that she was unable to make a determination about whether Kerr’s death should be classified as natural, accidental or homicide, the AP story noted.
“Mr. Kerr’s psychiatric history was significant for schizoaffective disorder for which he was not receiving any treatment at the time of his death,” Scott wrote. “It was not possible to make any firm conclusions regarding the inmate’s nutrition and fluid intake, and whether or not his mental health and/or external factors played a role in the dehydration.”
Scott noted abrasions on Kerr’s forearms were “consistent with restraint devices.”
Liles said she can’t help but think many other inmates suffer a similar fate, and again chided those in the prison system who would treat convicts as if they were lesser people.
“They think (inmates) don’t have anyone who is going to fight for them or love them,” she attested. “If I wasn’t fighting that could have been the end of it. He died on March 12, 2014 and now it is July 22, 2015. I’m well pleased with the outcome.”
Liles stressed that she will not see any of the $2.5 million, but that Kerr’s family, notably his wife and two sons, will benefit from it. Even so, she said, it wasn’t about the settlement.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about helping other mentally ill inmates get treated better and more fairly with the condition they have,” Liles said. “That’s the part I’m most satisfied about. Just one person can make a difference in people’s lives and I’m glad that I was able to be that person that makes a difference.”
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.