Yet Another Tale of Death in Jail Over a Debt, in a Nation Officially Without Debtors Prisons

Taken from a hospital suffering from gastroenteritis straight to jail, Joyce Curnell died there of likely dehydration. All over an unpaid court debt.


One often doesn't receive the best medical care in jail. The relatives of Joyce Curnell, who died in jail last July, are threatening to sue the jail's medical contractor, the Carolina Center for Occupational Health, claiming the jail neglected to give the very ill Ms. Curnell (she was arrested while in a hospital for a stomach ailment) the water she needed to live while in Charleston County jail in South Carolina.

The Post and Courier reported today on the situation.

Post and Courier


spent the last 27 hours of her life behind bars. During that time she became too sick to eat or call for help, according to court documents filed this week. She vomited all night and couldn't make it to a bathroom, so jailers gave her a trash bag. Some medical staffers ignored the jail officials' requests to tend to her, the documents alleged.

Curnell was also "one of at least six [black] women nationwide to die in law enforcement custody that month. They included Sandra Bland, the inmate found hanged in a Texas jail days after a state trooper pulled her from her car during a traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but the trooper was indicted on a perjury charge for his handling of the arrest."

Curnell had been taking by ambulance to a hospital, and diagnosed with gastroenteritis. Through methods the Post and Courier was not able to pin down, while there it "was discovered" that she owed $1,148 in fines to a court related to a 2011 shoplifting case.

She wasn't keeping up on her payments to the court, so after not responding to "a letter from the court," she had a warrant for her arrest over her head since August 2014.

While Curnell was ill in the hospital, the police nabbed their woman, and took her to jail from the hospital.

Instead of staying in the jail's medical facility, Curnell was taken to a housing unit. Jail officers reported later that she vomited "through the night" and "couldn't make it to the bathroom," the documents stated. They gave her a trash bag…

She couldn't eat breakfast the next morning. No records indicated that she was given water or intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration, the filings added…

Maria Gibson, the Medical University Hospital primary care doctor hired as an expert witness for the family, said in an affidavit that Curnell died of complications from her sickness. Coupled with her underlying conditions, Curnell was just too sick to overcome dehydration without aid, Gibson said.

In a nation without official debtors prison, Ms. Curnell died in jail because she owed the court money.

Another tale of death and effective debtors prison I reported on earlier this week.

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  1. Courts have to get paid or else there’s no way we can sustain making every action criminal.

    1. Entire system explained in one sentence.

  2. Exposing this kind of government malfeasance is a lot more useful than time-wasters like ginning up a libertarian case for Bernie Sanders.

    1. Because one is going to influence the world more than the other?

    2. Malfeasance?

      Go to the hospital and kidnap a patient who is very sick. Hide them away and deprive them of medical care until they die.

      I don’t think you would be charged with malfeasance.

      Also, there is no libertarian case for socialism or communism. That is a load of horseshit to justify Soave’s eventual vote for the commie cocksucker. Because he won’t send troops to Syria? Yes, he will, and he is the most likely to send troops to Robbie’s neighborhood.

      What the hell is it with Reason writers? They vote for the least freedom loving candidates because ‘Bush!’? I am convinced that shreek is one of them.

      1. Robby did say explicitly that he wouldn’t vote for Sanders in the “libertarian case for bernie”thread, FWIW. Maybe he’s lying. But I don’t see any reason to think so. That post was pretty close to damning with faint praise to my eye.

        1. I missed it, just saw it referred to in some other threads. Knee jerk on my part based on what other Reason writers have done in the past two elections.

          Honestly I was more than a little surprised that Soave might have done that.

          Robbie, I apologize. Sincerely.

  3. I was wondering if i could make it through the afternoon with my nuts unpunched.

    Guess not.

    1. Just don’t have nuts. Problem solved.

      1. Hey, riven, the genital mutilation thread is down there.

        1. I’ve been led to believe that has more to do with the bait than the tackle, or am I wrong?

          1. Its an equal-opportunity thing, at least in the comments.

            1. I think I’ll stay out of that one, since I don’t really know much about the issue.

              I will, however, go on record to say I ate at Old Chicago last night, and I got the deep dish.

              1. Hey, what better place to gain knowledge about clinical, social, and cultural issues than the H & R Cantina?

                1. You make a compelling case, sir. Maybe I’ll wade into it tonight during some downtime and see if I can learn anything.

              2. I ate at Old Chicago last night, and I got the deep dish

                I haz majjr sadz noone made a Michelle Obama joke…

  4. In a nation without official debtors prison, Mr. Curnell died because she owed the court money.

    One of the Reason writers (can’t recall which) has been insisting that the guy who was killed over student debt was really killed for not complying with a court order.

    Me, I think this is sophistry, because the court order is merely a conduit for enforcing the “real” offense. Glad to see Brian get it right.

  5. Did any of the presidential candidates stumping South Carolina comment on this miscarriage of justice? Or does “tough on crime and support our police” still rule the day? The only one who might have mentioned it is, of course, that extremist nut and fringe candidate Rand Paul.

  6. This sounds like possible medical neglect – hopefully they hold inquests in SC for any death in govt custody.

    But i don’t see how this is about “debtors’ prison” – there’s an underlying criminal conviction for shoplifting. Repayment on a specific schedule was a condition for staying out of prison.

    If she’d been treated properly and her health problems attended to – which doesn’t seem to have happened – then the fact that she was in prison wouldn’t have been a problem.

    1. If they hadn’t issued an arrest warrant for failure to pay a fine, maybe she would have received proper medical care at the hospital where she originally went.

      1. Her family can probably sue the hospital, as well.

        1. I’m sure they will, but I can’t see any grounds, unless somebody at the hospital ratted her out, which would be a HIPAA violation.

          1. Seems like either someone must have ratted her out, or the police were reading over someone’s shoulder when they shouldn’t have.

    2. This sounds like possible medical neglect

      No, it doesn’t.

      It is reckless disregard, not possible neglect. She was arrested in a hospital, so there’s no chance they didn’t know about her needs. They just couldn’t give a shit, and she died.

      1. I firmly agree that arresting her in a hospital and then not even giving her medical treatment is reckless disregard.

        However, as Eddie mentioned, she was not arrested for a civil debt. She was fined for shoplifting. That is criminal, and not paying fines as a result of criminal offenses (particularly ones that are truly crimes like theft) should legitimately be punished with jail. Particularly if paying the fine was what kept her out of jail in the first place.

        1. Yeah, putting her in jail at all wasn’t the problem. Taking her from the hospital while she was still seriously ill was. If that makes it a bit more possible that a shoplifter might evade them for a little bit longer, I think that’s a risk they can afford to take.

      2. OK, I imagine you read more of the article than I did and that it’s reckless disregard instead.

        I’ll just say “did bad stuff to a sick person” and give an inquest jury (if SC has them) the first crack at saying what legal label to attach.

  7. No one is going to say anything about the hospital turning a patient over to the cops? What, are they running background checks on patients? Hey – let’s give the government more control over healthcare!

    There’s so much wrong with this story. They arrested a women at the hospital. Presumably, the doctors signed off on her being well enough to go in. Once there, her obvious sickness was ignored and apparently the medical staff blew off treating her. Sounds legit across the board to me.

    1. Yeah, that caught my eye, too.

      I’ve issued diktats at three hospitals now, that police inquiries about when a patient will be discharged will not be responded to (HIPAA, doncha know).

      Now, whether someone is in a hospital is not hard to find out in almost all cases. There’s no telling how the cops found out, but I seriously doubt the hospital is running warrant checks on their patients and calling them in. Who has the time, for one thing?

      Once they know, well, they can arrest our patients and there’s nothing we can do about it. its not a matter of us “turning them over” to the cops; unless we want to host a gun battle in the hospital, we can’t stop them.

      1. The relevant paragraphs from the story are this:

        At some point at the hospital, it was discovered that she had a bench warrant in a 2011 shoplifting case. She had been put on a payment plan in April 2012 to cover $1,148.90 in fines related to the charge, according to court records, but she quit paying the following January. After she didn’t respond to a letter from the court, the warrant was issued in August 2014.

        No one could tell The Post and Courier how law enforcement got word of the warrant as she lay in the hospital last summer.

        Well, that’s not a big mystery. Cops always know about warrants on anyone. The warrants are issued to them, after all. The question is, how did they find out she was in the hospital?

        The Charleston Police Department was first summoned there, but officers later called deputies from the Sheriff’s Office. Watson said he could not immediately find documentation about how the authorities learned of Curnell’s charge.

        This is just one bizarre paragraph. Somebody “summoned” the cops to the hospital? Sounds like it could have been somebody at the hospital, but who knows? How did the cops find out about the charge? How do they find out about any warrant or charge? They look it up on their fucking computers, that’s how. Again, the real question is how did they find out she was in the hospital?

        1. It was a poorly written story. It is interesting that she was arrested in 2011. Put on a payment plan in April 2012. Stopped paying in Jan 2013, the bench warrant wasn’t even issued until August 2014. And then she is arrested at the hospital in July of 2015.

          The wheels of justice certainly do turn swiftly…….

          I have a world of sympathy for this lady and her family. She certainly didn’t deserve to die. And the jailors and the medical folks at the jail should be punished harshly.

          But the whole thing about “debtor’s prison” is kind of bs. She should have been treated humanely. And how they found out she was in the hospital does kind of smell. But, in general, being jailed for not paying her fine for shoplifting, is perfectly legitimate.

  8. “Through methods the Post and Courier was not able to pin down, while there it “was discovered” that she owed $1,148 in fines to a court…”

    I really, really want to know what the methods are.

    1. Isn’t criminal punishment a matter of public record?

      1. But why was someone at the hospital checking her for warrants?

        1. Uh, she’s black, duh.
          No, seriously, this is the question. How come the cops are called in the first place?

        2. Yea, that’s the point. The least troublesome scenario I can think of is maybe a cop was at the hospital for some official reason and happened to see her and recognize her. But they should just tell that to the newspaper if that’s the case.

        3. I’m not sure anyone was running her for warrants at the hospital. That is the big mystery here; who tatted her out?

    2. Oh, well, mystery solved.…../160229587 It was her own son who got her locked up.

  9. Is the court the clearing house for making restitution for the shop lifting? And by allowing installment payments gave her freedom? And she didn’t maintain the restitution? A legitimate function of government is preserving property rights from theft. A part of that is putting people in cages if they are felt to be unable to stop not infringing on other people’s property rights. The “cage” part of the process is the hard part to get my head around as a libertarian, because I don’t relish the idea of that part of the process being in any way attractive, and so support a lean cost model. But to the point where someone dehydrates to death? Not so much. So, I don’t see this as a debtor’s prison IF the money was restitution. If the money was court costs only, then it is more of a debt issue. Of course, the whole thing finally dovetails into an acute lack of oversight so that a person dies in the hands of the government.

    1. The story says pretty clearly that the fines were court costs.

      1. It says no such thing. it refers to “court fines” and then later tt says the fines were levied in connection to her shoplifting charge. That is all it says.

        Have sympathy for the woman and her family. The jailors and the medical staff at the jail should be punished harshly. But the fact that she was arrested and put in jail, in and of itself, is perfectly legitimate.

        1. Really? $1400 is a lot of money. I’d she was arrested for shop lifting and not a more serious charge, it means she stole something inexpensive. So, are the fines reasonable?

  10. Yet liberals routinely say that jail is better than being free because prisoners have free medical care.

    1. They also say that prison is better than freedom because you get a guaranteed roof over your head and three hot meals a day and more sex than you could ever want. Well they probably say that. I don’t need to cite anyone actually saying it because it sounds like something they would say.

      Anyways, don’t those dumbasses ever get tired of being wrong?!

    2. Yeah, sadly, her own son was laboring under this delusion. He’s the one who tipped the police that she was at the hospital and had outstanding warrants. He thought she could get “help” for her alcoholism in jail.…../160229587

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