Advocates question state’s autopsy reporting policy for prisoners

DOVER — Over the course of 2018, 14 inmates died in the Delaware Department of Correction’s care. With a prison population of over 5,000 inmates — many serving life sentences — this is an expected outcome. In 2016, the DOC reported 14 inmate deaths and in 2017, 10 more. However, beyond the names of the dead inmates, the public is entitled to very little information concerning the nature of their deaths. Transparency advocates are saying that in a prison system funded full by tax dollars, an opaque autopsy reporting policy prevents the public from holding the DOC accountable.

A typical inmate death notice the press receives from the DOC will include the inmate’s name, date of death, age, facility they were in, charges they were incarcerated for and whether or not foul play was “suspected.” As “standard procedure” dictates, the DOC then hands the body off to the State Division of Forensic Science for an autopsy and medical examination. However, this seems to be where the publics’ access to information ends. Media requests for the bare minimum of information pertaining to cause of death and autopsy reports are routinely rebuffed.

For its part, the DOC claims it does not receive inmate autopsy reports from the Delaware Department of Safety & Homeland Security (DSHS) — which oversees Division of Forensic Science. Further, they say adherence to HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prevents them from providing any additional information on the conditions inmates die under.

“We can’t share details without consent from the family,” said Jayme Gravell, a DOC spokeswoman.

DSHS says more flatly that autopsy reports are not public documents. When the agency receives a Freedom of Information Act request from the media seeking an inmate autopsy report, it refers journalists to a 2015 opinion written by outgoing Attorney General Matt Denn which states that autopsy reports of this nature fall under an investigative file exemption and the decision to release the requested information is discretionary.

In a year with at least three inmate deaths transparency advocates call “eyebrow-raising,” they question the line where the state’s right to withhold information meets the public’s right to know.

Two inmates connected with the ongoing criminal trial to determine the fate of 18 inmates charged with perpetrating a deadly riot at Vaughn prison in 2017 were reported dead in November in Howard R. Young Correctional Institution. One was one of the inmates awaiting trial, and the other was a potential witness.

The charged inmate Kelly Gibbs, 30, was reported dead on Nov. 22 by the DOC. He stood accused of murder, kidnapping, riot, assault and conspiracy. In its original news release, the DOC noted that Gibbs had just pleaded guilty to riot, kidnapping and conspiracy charges before being found dead.

Luis Cabrera, 49, reported dead two weeks before Gibbs, was both a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against the state alleging inhumane prison conditions and a potential witness in the ongoing criminal trial stemming from the riot.

In early October, the DOC announced that a 37-year-old “detentioner,” Tiffany Reeves, died in Sussex Correctional Institution. She was being held on $1,202 bond awaiting future court proceedings at the time of her death.

No official details concerning the manner of death were provided at the time of all three deaths other than foul play not being “suspected.” It wasn’t until advocates had made contact with family members of the deceased, that a patchy details were pieced together.

Stephen Hampton, a Dover attorney representing more than 100 inmates in a lawsuit against the state’s prison conditions, alleged in November that the deaths of his client (Cabrera) and the two other inmates were due to DOC negligence.

Mr. Hampton claimed that Cabrera died of a perforated ulcer after being “denied medical treatment for more than a month.” He later provided the Delaware State News with a copy of Cabrera’s death certificate (obtained from his widow) that listed the cause of death as: “perforated duodenal ulcer.”

Mr. Hampton claims Gibbs killed himself — something he says could have been prevented if DOC had stuck to their own policies pertaining to close observation after a guilty plea.

Both the DOC and Governor’s Office have declined to comment on the two deaths due to “active litigation.”

As for Reeves, Mr. Hampton alleges the DOC failed to follow proper “intoxication and withdrawing” protocols to ensure that she remained in stable condition.

“Women who are intoxicated or withdrawing from a substance should be monitored on a regular basis,” he said. “But Ms. Reeves was not being monitored at all despite being on intoxication hold. She laid dead in her cell at SCI for 6 or more hours without anyone checking on her.”

Delaware Coalition for Open Government director John Flaherty says that the need to hold government agencies accountable should be considered above privacy concerns.

“Autopsy reports are a very sensitive issue with families and guardians, but I think in many cases, particularly when you have a death at a state facility, there is an overriding public interest in making sure our elected and other public officials are being held to the highest standards,” he said.

Mr. Flaherty notes that the state used to provide more information to taxpayers. The state’s reporting policy only became so restrictive in 2015, when the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was disbanded and rolled into DSHS. Before then, the media and citizens would often have access to autopsy or cause of death reports in most cases, he said.

“It’s just in these last few years that they’ve started to withhold not only autopsy results, but also the medical examiners conclusions,” he said. “We really disagree with this. Legally, they’re probably allowed to keep this secret, but there really is an obligation to the public here that’s being overlooked. They’re violating the spirit of openness and transparency.”

Kathleen MacRae, executive director of ACLU Delaware, agrees.

“There is an issue related to family privacy that we have some concern about, but transparency and accountability overrides that,” she said. “If an inmate dies and it was natural causes with no culpability on the DOC’s end, it won’t be news. Even if it’s reported, it’ll be in and out of the news cycle immediately. However, if the DOC or their medical services are culpable for something that happened, the public should know — it’d be important news to inform legislators and voters. How else do we hold these governmental agencies responsible?”

A harsher critic of the DOC administration, Citizens For Criminal Justice founder Ken Abraham implies that the lack of transparency is intentional.

“I know all too well that DOC officials often lie about cause of death and try to conceal the real situation,” he claims. “They oppose releasing death certificates and medical examiner’s reports. This is because too many deaths are caused by DOC staff and/or medical staff neglecting or outright abusing inmates.”

Referencing a 2015 incident where an inmate Ronald Shoup died in Sussex Correctional Institution, Mr. Abraham alleges DOC staff has been guilty of outright “homicide” that they’ve not had to answer for.

This paper reported in 2015 that although Shoup’s autopsy revealed the 48-year-old’s death was a homicide caused by multiple blunt force injuries to the torso, lower and upper extremities, the Department of Justice said an investigation found no criminal charges were warranted regarding the incident.

A lawsuit against several DOC officers and medical staff was later filed in 2016 that alleged excessive force and lack of care caused Shoup’s death.

Starting 2019 with several new members in the General Assembly and newly elected Attorney General Kathy Jennings, Mr. Flaherty, Ms. MacRae and Mr. Abraham all feel the state should examine its policy as it pertains to the autopsy results of people who die while in state custody.

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