A woman who was arrested at a hospital over the summer for failing to pay court fines died the next day because she was deprived of water at the Charleston County jail, her family’s attorneys said Wednesday.
Joyce Curnell, 50, of Edisto Island was found dead in the jail shortly before 5 p.m. July 22, a day after being taken from Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital, where she had been treated for a stomach illness.
She 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’s family filed a notice Wednesday to sue the jail’s medical contractor, Carolina Center for Occupational Health, for malpractice. Unless a settlement is reached, a lawsuit likely will follow. The filing cited expert opinion from a local doctor, who said Curnell’s death “more likely than not” would have been prevented if she had been properly treated for gastroenteritis and dehydration.
The family attorney, James Moore III, said in a statement that her death resulted from a “deliberate failure.” While a suit in state court is planned, Moore said one in federal court could follow.
“Providing access to reasonable medical care to those under police custody is a necessity, not a privilege,” he said. “It is a constitutional right. We are committed to seeking justice for Joyce and for her family.”
Curnell’s death came at a time of increased scrutiny of how black women are handled behind bars. She was one of at least six such 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.
In Curnell’s death, the State Law Enforcement Division did an investigation and completed a report, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said. The Post and Courier filed a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request for the document, but SLED officials did not turn it over Wednesday.
Attempts to reach the contractor through three telephone calls and an email Wednesday were not successful. Maj. Eric Watson of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, said he had just learned of the possible lawsuit and had no immediate comment.
State law requires officials to render medical care when inmates need it, said Shaundra Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. The Bill of Rights, she said, also demands humane treatment of those incarcerated.
The ACLU plans to monitor the case closely, Scott said.
“It is very unfortunate to hear of another death of an African-American while in police custody,” she said. “If Ms. Curnell was denied medical treatment, then it is our position that her constitutional rights were violated.”
Around noon on July 21, Curnell was taken from Edisto Island by ambulance to the hospital as she complained of nausea and vomiting. She was diagnosed in the emergency room with gastroenteritis, an irritation of the stomach and intestines.
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.
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.
The family’s attorney also said he was looking for that explanation.
Curnell was hydrated at the hospital, given medications and told to seek prompt medical attention if she continued to experience pain and vomiting. On top of her illness, she had a history of sickle cell disease, high blood pressure and alcoholism.
Doctors discharged her from the hospital with instructions. The deputies then took her to the jail around 2:30 p.m. It was her only arrest in South Carolina, according to a SLED background check.
A nurse at the jail who examined Curnell when she got there later told SLED that she was complaining only of a headache, this week’s court filings stated. A doctor prescribed medication for the headache and nausea, but the documents alleged that the staffers didn’t follow the hospital doctor’s recommendations.
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.
The jailers said they informed the medical staff of Curnell’s condition, but the experts “refused to provide any medical attention to (her) whatsoever,” the court documents stated.
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.
A sheriff’s incident report stated that the medical staff checked her around 2 p.m., but within three hours, she was dead.
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.
Gibson blamed a “series of conscious violations.”
“Simply put,” the doctor said, “Ms. Curnell died because she was deprived of water.”
Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553. Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.