IVANHOE — Brenda Liles can’t get her brother’s face out of her mind. She sees him, she said, in segregation at the Taylorsville prison where he had been incarcerated for around three years, alone, suffering from mental issues that had left him depressed. And then she pictures him being transported to Central Prison, again alone, suffering and eventually dying, no family around to comfort him.
She blames prison officials for his death, all of them, she said, from Alexander Correctional Institute to Central Prison to those at the state’s Department of Corrections.
“They’ve all got blood on their hands as far as I’m concerned,” Liles said this week. “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.”
Her brother, Michael Anthony Kerr, died March 12 after being taken from Alexander to Central Prison. He was found unresponsive in the back of a van, according to the Associated Press.
North Carolina prison officials have asked the State Bureau of Investigation to review the death of the inmate who, reports show, suffered from mental illness.
Records indicate that the 53-year-old inmate from Sampson County was held in solitary confinement prior to his death.
The AP reported that Pam Walker, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on whether Kerr had been involved in any kind of altercation with prison staff before being placed in the van, but said one employee had resigned while under investigation.
A police report on Kerr’s death does not list any visible injuries and Walker said there was no indication of “foul play.”
In a written statement issued by his department, Public Safety Secretary Frank L. Perry expressed his condolences to Kerr’s family shortly after the inmate’s death. He said administrators in the prison system had raised concerns about the circumstances under which Lile’s brother died.
Perry said he wants a “swift, aggressive and thorough” investigation and that disciplinary action will be taken against prison staff if needed.
“Adherence to established policies and procedures is critical to operating safe, humane and secure prisons, and I will not tolerate those procedures being violated,” Perry said.
Records show Kerr, whose criminal record included several convictions for larceny, was sentenced in 2011 to serve 31 years as a habitual felon after being charged with illegally possessing and discharging a firearm.
A sister’s anger
Liles, who still lives in Ivanhoe where she and her brothers, including Kerr, had been raised, buried her younger sibling on March 21.
As sorrowful as she remains about his death, it’s the anger that continues to swell inside her, an anger she directs at the prison officials she tried to warn about Kerr’s bouts with depression.
Her brother, she said, had not gotten over the death of his two sons, both murdered, she said, a few years back. “He was in a depressed state a lot of the time. Then my son, his nephew, was killed last year. They were close, and that just devastated him more,” she said.
The deaths, she stressed, weighed heavily on his mind, something she recognized in the letters she and her sibling exchanged during his incarceration.
It was thoughts of his mental state that was the catalyst for Liles’ phone calls to prison officials back in early March.
“I started calling them at Alexander on March 3,” Liles recalled, her voice husky with emotion. “I talked to a lieutenant there and told him I’d heard that my brother had not been treated right, and I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to talk to Michael, but he (the lieutenant) didn’t take me seriously I don’t think.”
Angry after the conversation, Liles’ next call was to the Department of Corrections in Raleigh, where she talked with someone she called a “higher up,” relating her concerns about her brother and her belief that Kerr wasn’t being treated as he should have been by prison officials at Alexander.
“I told him the same thing, that Michael wasn’t being treated right, that they weren’t tending to his medical needs. It was my feeling that he was being medically neglected.”
She made that second call on March 3 as well.
The third call was back to Alexander where she asked, she said, to set up a visit with her brother.
“That’s when I was told he was in segregation and that he couldn’t have visitors until Aug. 24. I was stunned. I asked what had happened, but I never really got a satisfactory answer.”
Then, on March 4, she said, Kerr’s counselor at Alexander called her.
“I pleaded and I begged her to get Michael some help. Really, I begged and pleaded with them all. I kept telling them he was being medically neglected.”
Kerr’s counselor, Liles said, assured her something would be done, that they’d transfer her brother back to Central, where he’d gone before because of his mental state. “She said she’d get the paperwork done and she’d get him some help.”
It was eight days later that Kerr left Alexander headed for Central Prison. “They didn’t get him the help they promised; they took so long.”
Liles called that March 12 morning and talked with an official at Alexander, trying to get a status report on her brother. “I was told that he had been transported that morning, that it looked like my prayers had been answered.”
In fact, it was the farthest thing from the truth.
Anger rose in Liles’ voice as she relived the phone call she received later in the day onMarch 12, this one a voicemail from the chaplain at Alexander, asking her to return a call. She did, receiving the devastating news that her brother had died.
“The chaplain told me my brother had passed away. He said when he got to Central Prison he was not responsive. That was pretty much all that was said. I really don’t know if he died on the way or when he got there. All I really know is that no one helped him. As far as I’m concerned they killed him because they didn’t do what they should have done and Michael is gone. I’m angry and I’m hurt.”
Liles called her brother a loving man who she had always felt very close to. Even though she had never visited him in prison, they kept in touch, she said, exchanging cards, letters and most of all love.
“He wasn’t done right and I’m gonna keep saying it to the day I die,” Liles asserted. “I fought for him on March 3 and March 4, and I’m going to keep fighting for him. That’s what I’m doing now, by telling his story, by letting people know that he wasn’t treated right.”
Some information for this article was provided through The Associated Press.