When Wardens Become Judge, Jury, and Executioner

In 2005, a woman passed away shortly after her arrest by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. Such deaths in custody or shortly thereafter are rare, but they do happen, and this case was complicated by the fact that she had diabetes. Her family is suing, arguing that she was denied insulin and this led to the deterioration of her condition that ultimately caused her death. This particular sheriff’s department is already rife with malpractice and accusations, so the case is attracting nationwide attention when normally it probably would not have; it would have been just another quiet prison death.

But there is nothing quiet about such cases, and they should not be taken lying down. Like scores of people who encounter the US prison and jail system every year, Deborah Braillard had a chronic health condition that needed to be managed in order to keep her stable. She may have broken the law, but the people in charge of incarcerating her had a responsibility to ensure that she had access to the medical treatment she needed for her condition. That included providing her with medical attendants, medications, and anything else she might need, as well as monitoring her for signs of complications or problems that might indicate she was decompensating.

Inmates are routinely denied even basic medical services, even when they request them and have clear evidence of a chronic condition that requires management. Someone wearing a medic alert bracelet, for example, is not guaranteed care or treatment from arresting officers and other officials, even though the bracelet should be an indicator that the inmate might have potentially complex medical needs that could turn serious if neglected. Denial of access to medical treatment in prison is a form of torture, and a very repugnant one. It’s used as a way to control and manipulate prisoners, sometimes with fatal effects.

The thing about chronic illnesses is that if they aren’t treated, patients can experience irreversible setbacks or may develop complications that require even more extensive treatment, like organ damage from medications that are not managed properly. For inmates with such conditions, there is a very real risk that a stay in jail or prison could have serious long-term health effects, and that’s if the stay doesn’t prove to be fatal, which it can be. It certainly was in Braillard’s case, and she’s not the only inmate, nor the most recent, to have died of her medical condition while under the ‘care’ of authorities.

People have been allowed to bleed to death in their cells, screaming for help. Other prisoners have called out to alert guards to the fact that something serious is occurring, and they haven’t taken decisive action to get medical aid, or they’ve said the patient can wait for the morning. Patients have pleaded for medications they need to survive, including drugs that need to be maintained in consistent levels in the body in order to avoid severe complications; psychiatric medications, for example, and antirejection drugs. Other inmates have informed officials about existing medical conditions in the hopes of having them handled responsibly, only to find that this makes them targets; pregnant inmates, for example, may be beaten or threatened.

This case, like others, will be hotly debated in courts and there will be considerable fuss made by the sheriff’s department in an attempt to deflect responsibility. They may try to argue that her diabetes was poorly managed before she arrived, making it difficult to determine the precise reason for her death, or claim that she didn’t notify them and they weren’t aware of the issue. Meanwhile, her family will attempt to fight not just for some kind of justice in her death, but for other prisoners in her situation, in the hopes of sparing them potentially painful, miserable, and lonely deaths at the hands of the system.

Law enforcement officers are not judges and juries. They do not have the authority to condemn people of crimes; they can cite people, they can hold them, they can participate in a variety of activities intended to protect public safety, but they cannot sit in judgement. And they certainly don’t have the authority to execute people. No one should have that authority; that the United States persists in retaining the death penalty long after many nations have given it up is a national shame, and it’s all the more shameful that frontier justice like this occurs across the country every year.

Because that’s effectively what’s happening here. When an inmate enters a holding facility alive and comes out dead, something has happened inside that facility. If the prisoner entered with a chronic health condition, there’s a good probability that adequate care was not provided and this played a deciding role in the death. Whether it be through ignorance, neglect, or active abuse, the people in charge of the facility have caused the prisoner’s death.

In the case of jails and other facilities used to hold people on suspicion of crimes, that amounts to execution without a trial. And we need to be looking at who dies in these situations, how law enforcement officers interact with inmates, who is most likely to be at risk of this kind of execution by default. Many of these cases involve inmates of colour who are typically low-income as well, considered disposable. They aren’t full human beings, and consequently prison and jail officials don’t feel any pressing need to make sure they receive respect, medical treatment, and protection in jail and prison settings.

When we allow prisoners to die from manageable medical conditions while in holding, we are condoning the use of extrajudicial justice. And this, too, should be a national shame, because everyone is entitled to a fair trial and other protections under the law, no matter what that person stands accused of.