How was a man in a Louisiana prison who was supposed to be on suicide watch allowed to smoke insecticide, leading to his death?
That's the question Jennifer Bartie wants answered. The man was her son, 37-year-old Javon Kennerson, who died in December 2020 several weeks after falling into a sudden and severe mental health emergency.
A federal civil rights lawsuit by Bartie says her son's death is a result of the facility's well-documented failures to provide adequate health care and properly monitor suicidal inmates, which has led to numerous preventable deaths over the years.
"In sum, after engaging in self-harm, ramming his head into his wall, acting psychotic, eating feces and drinking urine, Mr. Kennerson, in his altered mind state, was still under such poor care and supervision that he was permitted to smoke insecticide, which ultimately caused his death," the lawsuit, filed on Bartie's behalf by the National Police Accountability Project, says.
The lawsuit alleges that staff and supervisors were deliberately indifferent to Kennerson's deteriorated mental state and self-harm, violating his Eighth Amendment right to adequate health care while incarcerated. As Reason has reported in the past, despite these constitutional protections, gruesome medical neglect and malpractice is common throughout U.S. prison and jail systems.
Kennerson was serving a 20-year sentence after being convicted of an armed robbery spree in 2013. Bartie says he was in frequent contact with his family over the years and had no significant mental health issues until he was transferred in November 2020 to Catahoula Correctional Center, a private prison facility run by Lasalle Corrections that the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections contracts with.
Shortly after arriving at Catahoula on November 18, 2020, Kennerson began exhibiting erratic behavior, such as attempting to run naked out of his cell and defecating on his lunch tray.
The lawsuit says that, despite this, Kennerson did not receive any medical attention until November 25, when he was diagnosed with acute psychosis. Sometime between then and December 2, Kennerson obtained and smoked roach killer. He was transferred to a hospital on December 2 with low blood pressure, lethargy, and swollen limbs. Photographs accompanying the lawsuit show large, open gashes on his head, allegedly as a result of running into his cell door. By December 4, he was unresponsive and placed on life support.
It was not until December 8, however, that Kennerson's family was notified of his condition. Bartie says a doctor told her that Catahoula had refused to give him any contact information for Kennerson's family until the day before. Kennerson died on December 12, 2020.
"It was absolutely heartbreaking to find out the few details I had at that time and also to find out that in spite of my son's grave condition, they still did not have the decency to allow his family to be contacted," Bartie tells Reason. "I want people to know that, despite his crimes, he was a loving young man who did not deserve the treatment or lack of treatment he received. In fact, no one deserves that, and I want people in charge of him and others to be held accountable in order to possibly prevent this from happening to another family. My son is gone, but I want his name to live on."
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of allegations and reports of inadequate care at LaSalle facilities. The lawsuit says that, "LaSalle facilities were found out of compliance with minimum suicide prevention standards 29 times in the last 5 years. At least ten incarcerated people have died by suicide in LaSalle facilities while on suicide watch since 2016."
There have also been medical neglect cases. For example, Reason reported on the case of Holly Barlow-Austin, who died in 2019 after she was incarcerated in a jail in Texarkana, Texas, operated by LaSalle Corrections. After being deprived of her medications, she contracted meningitis, went blind, and was left for two days on the floor of a medical observation cell without food or water, where she repeatedly soiled herself, before she was finally taken to a hospital and died. The Texarkana jail is also where 20-year-old Morgan Angerbauer died of ketoacidosis in 2016 after being denied medications to manage her diabetes.
Bartie says that, after her son's death, neither Catahoula nor the previous facility he was housed in would give her any more information.
"Throughout the months following his death, I called both facilities to try and reason with someone to please give me any records they had on my son, because as his mother, I should be able to retrieve this information, especially since my son has passed away," she says. "They both refused."
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections and LaSalle Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.