A prison doctor along with two other staff members at the Kentucky State Penitentiary starved himself to death. The case has opened up the penitentiary to allegations that they posed a serious lapse in medical treatment as well as the procedure governing how the facility handles hunger strikes. Officials have requested that prosecutors investigate the death of the inmate.
James Kenneth Embry, 57, had served all but three years of his nine year sentence for drug offenses when he began to spiral out of control. The problems began in the spring of 2013 when Embry stopped taking his anti-anxiety medications. After weeks of erratic behavior, and seven months after he quit taking the medication, Embry began telling prison staff he felt anxious and paranoid and banging his head on his cell door.
Embry then began refusing to eat the majority of his meals. In January 2014, Embry had lost 30 pounds and weighed only 138 pounds when he died.
The internal investigation that was performed determined that the medical personnel charged with caring for the inmates failed to provide Embry with his medication. The medication that may have prevented his suicidal thoughts. The investigation also determined that the medical staff didn’t take the necessary steps when his condition worsened to check on him.
The medical procedures were also exposed during the internal investigation to be a complete failure when it came to regularly looking in on inmates during medical rounds and a serious lapse of communication between the medical staff personnel.
A review of medical records, autopsy report and personnel files found that Embry became increasingly paranoid until he died. It was also found that there were a multitude of opportunities for prison staff to have intervened and saved Embry’s life.
A Louisville based attorney who specializes in inmate rights litigation, Greg Belzley reviewed the documents and concluded, “It’s just very, very, very disturbing. How do you just watch a man starve to death?”
On December 3, Embry told lead psychologist, Jean Hinkebein that he felt anxious and paranoid and wanted to restart on his anti-anxiety medications. However Hinkebein reached the conclusion that Embry didn’t have any significant mental health issues even though he talked about wanting to hurt himself numerous times. Hinkebein determined Embry’s comments were vague and refused to give him the medication.
On Dec. 10, Embry started banging his head on his cell door and was ultimately moved to an observation. He then refused to eat his meals and told the prison psychologist, “I don’t have any hope.”
On Jan. 4, a nurse checked in on Embry and reported that he was weak and shaky. She stated she advised him to resume eating and that his response was, “that had been too long for him to start taking food again.”
Nine days later on the day Embry died, a registered nurse named Bob Wilkinson refused a request from other medical personnel to move Embry into the infirmary. An internal investigative report indicated that the request to move him was made at 11:51 a.m. and it said that he should be taken off a hunger strike watch.
Guards then found Embry several hours later unresponsive in his prison cell with his head slumped to the side. He was pronounced dead at 5:29 p.m. Lyon County Coroner Ronnie Patton classified Embry’s death as a suicide with the primary cause of death being dehydration with starvation and other medical ailments listed as secondary causes.
On Jan. 16, three days after Embry’s death, lead physician at the prison, Steve Hiland signed off on a nurse’s note regarding Embry’s consistent refusal of food and that he had been taken off of the hunger strike because he drank tea.
During the internal investigation, Hiland stated that it was his belief that a hunger strike was when an inmate missed “six or eight meals” and ended when the inmate ate or drank anything. Investigators asked Hiland how he thought inmates were supposed to be removed from a hunger strike. He responded that prison staff “usually don’t have to worry about it because they [the inmates] eventually give up.”
The internal investigation revealed that the medical staff told them that either they were unfamiliar with the hunger strike protocols or that Hiland and Wilkinson forbade them from following the procedures. Investigators reached the conclusion that Embry refused “35 of 36 meals before his death.”
Hinkebein was placed on administrative leave and is in the process of being fired. Hiland was also fired but claims that the Corrections Department used Embry’s death so that they could replace him with someone who would work more cheaply, not that he did anything wrong.
Regarding Embry, Hiland said, “I never saw this guy, never met him. I was convinced it was a way to get rid of me. I was told I should have known about it.”
The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office is still reviewing the investigation for any criminal charges.
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