RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into the death of a North Carolina inmate with mental illness who died of thirst after being held in solitary confinement for 35 days.
A federal grand jury in Raleigh issued two subpoenas Wednesday seeking records from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety concerning inmate Michael Anthony Kerr. The state agency released the subpoenas Thursday following a public records request from The Associated Press. Thomas G. Walker, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina whose office initiated the investigation, did not respond to a request seeking comment.
AP reported last week that an autopsy determined Kerr died of dehydration on March 12 and was receiving no treatment for his schizophrenia.
Records show the 54-year-old inmate was twice cited with violations by prison staff for flooding his cell in the weeks before his death. A written policy at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety allows prison staff to respond to the "misuse of plumbing facilities" by turning off the water to an inmate's sink and toilet.
In a statement to AP issued earlier this week, state commissioner of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice David Guice said the water to Kerr's cell "had not been turned off in the days immediately preceding his death."
However, the agency's leaders have refused to provide any dates on which the water to Kerr's cell was cut off. Officials have also refused to answer detailed questions from AP, such as whether Kerr was chained in restraints while locked in his cell or if he was too weak to walk in the days before he died.
Kerr was found unresponsive in the back of a prison van after being driven three hours from Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville to a mental hospital at Central Prison in Raleigh.
For more than six months, North Carolina prison officials say they and agents from the State Bureau of Investigation have been working to get to the bottom of why Kerr died. There has been no indication of when, or if, any written report of that state investigation will be publicly released.
The subpoenas issued this week say that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now "conducting an investigation of suspected criminal activity." They demand all documents and emails created by prison staff related to Kerr, including his medical and psychiatric records. The subpoenas also ask for any records related to disciplinary actions taken against Kerr, who was a habitual felon, and the resulting punishments.
North Carolina's prison system has long faced scrutiny for its treatment of inmates with chronic mental illnesses. In 1997, a federal audit followed the death of inmate Glen Mabrey, a Vietnam veteran with mental illness who died from dehydration after being held in solitary confinement at Central Prison. Mabrey's water had been cut off for four days after he'd intentionally flooded his cell.
The state prison system issued a statement Thursday outlining numerous changes to policies and procedures established after Kerr's death. Personnel actions have been taken against 30 employees, including 11 people who either were fired or resigned. A new chief administrator has been assigned at Alexander, the prison where Kerr was held.
The agency has also created a task force to develop new statewide policies on how inmates with mental illness are treated and housed within the system. Numerous studies have shown that long-term isolation can have severe effects on the mental well-being of inmates, especially those already suffering from psychiatric disorders.
"The tragedy of Michael Kerr's death and what we have learned from it cause us to reemphasize our commitment to the most professional and humane treatment of all those in our care and control," said Frank L. Perry, the state secretary of Public Safety.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck