Prison Life

He Wouldn't Wear a Mask on a Bus. One Thing Led to Another, and He Ended Up Dying in Jail.

Given the dangers of jails and prisons, the pettiest of crimes can become death sentences.


Maurice Monk was arrested in June for shouting threats, not carried out, at two bus drivers in the same day after both told him he had to don a mask. He spent two months in a psychiatric hospital after the arrest, and Monk then missed an October court appearance regarding the charges. This resulted in a bench warrant, and then to Monk being held in custody at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California. And there he died—one of two such deaths in the jail last week.

Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods told local TV station KTVU-FOX2, "There is absolutely no reason I can think in regards to why the court would keep Mr. Monk essentially locked in a cage when he's suffering from mental health issues for missing a court date."

Monk was diagnosed with bipolar disease and schizophrenia, and he suffered as well from diabetes and high blood pressure. His sister told KTVU that she ran into bureaucratic trouble getting his psychiatric medication, Haldol, to her jailed 45-year-old brother. A judge denied an attempt to get his bail reduced from $2,500. The Sheriff's Office referred to the death as being from "natural causes."

The Santa Rita Jail is a particularly dangerous place to be, with at least 45 prisoners showing up dead in custody there in the second half of the last decade. Elizabeth Nolan Brown has reported in Reason on that jail's awful record with pregnant prisoners.

Monk's fate embodies a tragedy of our penal system: Jails and prisons can be very hazardous places, and people often end up in them for the pettiest of reasons, sometimes compounded by an inability to keep up with the system's procedural steps or to handle its financial costs. This combination has led all too many people to die unjustly in custody. You should never pass laws that call for imprisonment unless you are prepared to say someone could ultimately die for the action.