An attorney for the estate of inmate Jonathon Lancaster, who died last year in a Michigan prison, says the issue is symptomatic of how mentally ill prisoners are treated.
A dozen Michigan Department of Corrections employees are facing a wrongful death lawsuit one year after an inmate died in the state’s Upper Peninsula.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Jonathon Lancaster, 38, passed away at the Alger Correctional Facility after being repeatedly denied necessary medical care. Isolated, Lancaster grew increasingly paranoid, losing 51 pounds in scarcely a month. Yet even as his health problems became visibly apparent, Alger officials did little to find Lancaster appropriate medical treatment.
“What makes this death so tragic is that it could have been so easily avoided,” said Kevin Ernst, an attorney representing the Lancaster estate. “How could these prison officials be so callous as to let a man slowly die in plain sight and not get him help?”
Ernst noted that Lancaster was also a father and grandfather.
But Ernst says that Lancaster’s death wasn’t just an isolated incident—instead, it’s indicative of larger problems within state prisons, particular Michigan’s treatment of mentally ill inmates. Lancaster, by the time of his death, had been diagnosed with numerous psychological disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression and “anti-personality disorder.”
[note: the Detroit Free Press cited the lawsuit in claiming Lancaster had “anti-personality disorder.” It is not unlikely that the intended term was “antisocial personality disorder,” which is disproportionately represented within higher-security prison populations]
Lancer, says the Free Press, was transferred to Alger in January of 2019. By the beginning of March, he’d begun exhibiting “bizarre” behavior accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations. He developed insomnia, sometimes staring blank-faced at walls for extended periods of time.
Meanwhile, Lancaster refused meals, medication and water. He’d told officials and outside contacts that he believed he was being poisoned and was soon going to die.
By the 8th of March, Lancaster—whose cell had been covered in urine and feces—was transferred to an isolation room. Inside, Lancaster didn’t have regular access to water or any other fluids.
Between the end of February and March 11th, Lancaster last over a quarter of his bodyweight. On the 11th itself, medical officials finally approved his transfer to another facility with more advanced treatment options. Lancaster was strapped into a restraint chair at 8:30am.
When officials finally revisited Lancaster nearly four hours later, he wasn’t breathing. He was pronounced dead just after noon the same day; an autopsy confirmed the cause of death as dehydration.
“Defendants’ callous reason for refusing to provide Mr. Lancaster with the treatment he so desperately and obviously required was that Mr. Lancaster was trying to draw attention to himself and make their jobs more difficult,” the lawsuit states.
Lancaster, notes the Free Press, was serving a four to twenty year sentence for robbing a Detroit-area convenience store of $150.
The Free Press says that the Michigan Department of Corrections along with the twelve named employees declined requests for comment.