NEW YORK—When 18-year-old Sheneque Proctor died in an Alabama county jail in November, it didn’t draw the kind of national attention that has become so common after a civilian’s death at the hands of police. Arrested for disorderly conduct, she was found dead in her cell less than 24 hours later, and the cause of death—released two months later—was a drug overdose.
Her death sparked an online petition to call for a federal investigation alleging that Proctor, an asthmatic, possibly died of neglect while in police custody. Over 10,000 people have signed it.
Proctor’s case is not necessarily unusual, though.
“There certainly have been in cases where people are in police custody and they die from a combination of police abuse and neglect, sometimes just neglect,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) in New York City. He said that sometimes those arrested don’t even make it to a cell. He said that all too often when someone has been injured or killed in the process of being arrested, they are “ignored,” as happened with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown.
“Police not only engage in excessive force, but then insufficiently attending to people who have been injured and it reflects a cavalier attitude toward people who have been injured,” he said.
Nobody to Record
In New York City, the largest police force in the country often comes under scrutiny and faces lawsuits over treatment of those in custody. But elsewhere in the United States there are regular instances of men and women dying after being incarcerated. The difference when compared with the more high-profile cases is that there is nobody to record the death with a cellphone and public records are difficult to obtain.
A simple Internet search reveals that multiple reports of deaths in police custody under odd circumstances are regularly reported by local media outlets.
An Orange County, Calif., man arrested for domestic violence was found hanged in his cell on New Year’s Day. In an Allegheny County, Pa., jail, a 28-year-old man in good health was dead of jaundice within two months of being locked up. In Huntsville, Ala., a 19-year-old man arrested for shoplifting died of gangrene on the floor of his cell soon after he was locked up. On Rikers Island in New York City, a homeless man baked to death in his cell.
Only the Rikers Island case led to widespread public outcry and reform in official policy. The statistics show, though, that people arrested and jailed die on a regular basis.
In 2011, 885 people died while in custody in local jails across the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). That’s 122 deaths for every 100,000 inmates, the lowest since they started recording deaths in 2000.
The information collected by the BJS Death in Custody Reporting Program is limited, though. Simple forms are collected from America’s 50 state prison systems and local jail jurisdictions with check boxes for “number of inmate deaths” and two blank spaces for male and female. That includes those who died while being arrested or who were in transit to the jail. The BJS said that about 97 percent of local jails respond to the questionnaire.
There’s also the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which found that from 2010 to 2012, more than 1,200 people were killed by police. Those numbers, based on voluntary reports by law enforcement officials, are also regarded as somewhat unreliable at best, and at worst, incomplete.
At the federal level, the data collection has proved not to be enough.
A new measure called the Death in Custody Reporting Act was just signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 18. Once it takes effect in two years, it will require all states and federal law enforcement agencies to report all deaths of those in their custody to the Department of Justice.
Once used in the early 2000s, the original law expired in 2006 and was never renewed.
“Without accurate data, it is nearly impossible to identify variables that lead to an unnecessary and unacceptable risk of individuals dying in custody or during an arrest,” said bill sponsor Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in a statement when it was signed into law. Scott added that after the original act was enacted in 2000, there was a decline in suicides and homicides of those in custody.
Yet for those who have been inside jail and made it out, there is a lack of accountability for how law enforcement treats people who are incarcerated.
Valeria M. Souza, a 34-year-old lecturer of Portuguese at Washington University in St. Louis was arrested in early December in Detroit for misdemeanor trespassing. Though she won’t discuss the details of her case because of a pending court appearance, Souza did say she’s been active protesting against police in St. Louis and Detroit since early September.
In an interview last month, she recounted her arrest, and fearing for her life.
“Essentially I have not just asthma but I have multiple sclerosis, and as a matter of course when I leave my house I carry my medications on me,” she said. “I do this for my own safety; I have to have them on me all the time.”
Souza knew as soon as she was arrested that she was at risk.
“I was really concerned about my breathing,” she said. “Almost from the minute they had handcuffs on me, I said, ‘Please, I have asthma, my medications are in my backpack.'” Souza said she never even saw her medications again until she was bailed out from jail by friends.
Her jailhouse care consisted of only a rudimentary health check by a jail nurse that only involved taking only her blood pressure and pulse, and asking questions about her prescriptions. Her jailers said that they would have to verify whether her prescriptions were legitimate, but no definitive time frame was given when she’d have access to them.
During the two hours that Souza was being booked, processed, and interviewed by the jail’s nurse, she repeatedly said that one of her twice-daily asthma maintenance inhaler doses was soon due to be taken. Her entreaties for access to her medicine were largely met with passive agreement, but it was the nurse’s reaction that made her blood run cold.
“The nurse said ‘Maybe you’ll get them in a couple of hours,'” said Souza. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to have an asthma attack. I was scared.”
The time frames differ by state, but people arrested on a misdemeanor can generally be held at least 24 hours before they are charged.
Once in her holding cell, Souza found that among the dozen or so other women also being held for misdemeanors, one other woman was an asthmatic. The woman told her that she’d been held for 65 hours without access to her steroid inhaler, and had suffered an asthma attack the day before. After the attack she was taken to the hospital.
For Souza, the situation was looking bleak.
Getting Harder to Breathe
“As hours went by in the holding cell … I’m feeling like it’s getting harder to breathe, and I’m hearing that I’m wheezing,” she said. She discovered that some of her other cellmates had been there for more than 48 hours.
“That’s when I started wondering if I was going to die,” said Souza, but instead she was charged and released after eight hours. It wasn’t until she heard about Sheneque Proctor’s death that she realized things could have easily gone sideways. “After I saw this story about Ms. Proctor I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, that could have been me.'”
“I think no one cared about whether I could breathe and I think no one cared about if Ms. Proctor could breathe,” she said. “The minute you become incarcerated you are not a person. It was clear to me that I ceased to become a person the minute I was handcuffed.”