Between the moment when Joyce Curnell first set foot in the Charleston County jail and the last time she stirred in bed, many people who saw the 50-year-old could tell she was sick.
But the ones in the best position to help her — the jail’s nurses and some of its officials — never did what her family said were simple things that could have spared her life.
Hours of vomiting drained her body’s water supply to fatal levels, and Curnell died July 22 of a stomach illness. Underlying conditions, such as sickle cell disease and alcoholism, may have hastened her death.
More than 200 pages of documents on a state probe into her death and 25 hours of jailhouse video paint the most vivid picture yet of the impoverished Edisto Island woman’s last day — the only time in her life that she spent behind bars.
They showed how the deputy who arrested Curnell at a hospital noted no signs of illness when she was booked. They showed the tall, slender woman frequently staggering to a doorless bathroom stall, where she would get sick. They showed her seeing a nurse for 94 seconds — enough time for her to say, according to the nurse, that nothing was wrong. No one inquired further about the vomiting.
Within two hours of the brief checkup she died in bed. Nobody sat by her side. Her son, whose call to authorities had led to her arrest in an old shoplifting case, wasn’t there. The decision by Javon Curnell and his sister to report their mother had been a veiled attempt to get her some needed care. The devastating result grew even harder to bear as they learned more in recent months.
“Now that they know what really happened,” said their lawyer, James Moore, “it’s been a struggle to cope with how their mother died.”
The investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division found no criminal wrongdoing, but Curnell’s family intends to sue the jail’s health care contractor, alleging malpractice. A lawsuit already filed against the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office accuses jailers of falling short of making sure she was tended to.
Revealed this week through S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests, details of the probe continued to raise questions about the level of care for inmates. SLED’s file contained witness statements, jail logs and photographs. The case is at least the sixth death to prompt a lawsuit against the Carolina Center for Occupational Health since the company started providing care at the jail in July 2009. One suit that also targeted the county prompted a $270,000 settlement.
Jay Davis, an attorney for the contractor, said this week that experts had been asked to do a full analysis of Curnell’s episode.
“We believe ... they will issue medical expert opinions that our clients acted professionally and performed their duties well within the appropriate legal standard of care,” he said.
‘Shaking so much’
Curnell was handcuffed when Deputy J.T. Milz walked her into the jail around 3 p.m. July 21. She wore a long white T-shirt and blue jeans. Bracelets from Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital, where she had been treated for gastroenteritis, were wrapped around her wrists.
After officers searched her, Curnell lowered her elbows to a table and rested her head in her hands. Later, she would lie down on some chairs and clutch a plastic bag.
Filling out paperwork, Milz answered “no” to questions about whether Curnell showed signs of a medical condition or needed evaluation.
Brandi Livingston, a nurse who saw Curnell around 5:30 p.m., was one of 23 people to write statements for SLED. Curnell showed no symptoms and said only that she had a headache and hadn’t eaten all day, Livingston wrote. The nurse told her to eat something, and an off-site doctor prescribed Tylenol and Zofran for any nausea. The dosages would be taken twice daily but only as needed.
After waiting for five hours in a room, she got the medication around 10 p.m. Soon she was lying in her cot in the B3M housing unit — an open area with game tables and dozens of beds in pods of four. Wearing a uniform with green stripes, Curnell got up often.
“She was placed in a pod that was nearest the bathroom due to her shaking so much whenever she walked,” wrote Charlene Jackson, a detention officer. “After a few minutes of being in the unit, she was in the bathroom throwing up.”
Nurse ‘walked off’
At times, Curnell couldn’t reach the bathroom and threw up on the floor. The vomit was mostly clear — a sign that her body already was running dry.
She accepted a red biohazard bag from one of her podmates at 10:30 p.m. Jackson reported Curnell’s condition to the medical unit around 1:30 a.m., the officer wrote.
But the nurse who answered, Ashley Wiley, wrote that the call was closer to 4 a.m. She told the officer that another nurse checking on diabetic inmates would see Curnell.
Jail policy calls for any inmate to get seen within 24 hours of asking for medical aid through an electronic kiosk, but Curnell was too weak at the time to do that. Requests considered “urgent” or “emergent” should be handled immediately, but no one documented any urgency on her behalf.
Nine hours would pass between Curnell’s contacts with nurses.
At 2 a.m., she bent down to sip water from a fountain. Her body, though, rejected everything she consumed, witnesses wrote.
“While waiting for the nurse, I observed her throwing up nonstop,” Jackson wrote. “She would say her meds were brought here and she needed to get and take them.”
Around 4:30 a.m., the officer gave Curnell a plastic-lined milk crate and backed off. Over the next few minutes, Curnell vomited repeatedly.
Nurse LaTreece Gee came by 15 minutes later. Jackson pointed out Curnell.
“The female was sitting up in her bed ... rocking a little back and forth,” Gee wrote. “The female just came in the previous night, and I didn’t think her (medical) orders were put in yet.”
The nurse never got close enough to be seen by the video camera over Curnell’s pod.
“(Gee) pointed to the pod ... but she walked off,” Jackson wrote. “The inmate was still throwing up.”
When the lights came on at 7 a.m., Curnell twice tried to sit up before falling back to her mattress. She eventually stood and ate breakfast. She couldn’t hold it down, others said.
But nurse Thomas Barron wrote that Curnell reported no issues when he gave her some pills at 8 a.m. She socialized with other inmates in the recreation yard.
“I did not see her throw up again,” wrote Atala Diehl-Moore, an officer on duty then. “Nothing looked out of sorts.”
But Curnell continued to get sick, the inmates said.
“She seemed fine but weak,” wrote one of them, Kristen Cook, 41. “She laid down through the afternoon, still vomiting.”
Barron wheeled a cart into the unit’s multipurpose room at 2 p.m. Curnell walked in and stayed for a minute and a half. She “sat down quietly and had her blood pressure taken,” he wrote. She “got up ... and left the room with no complaints.”
Curnell’s mental state was likely so altered that she didn’t know how grave her condition was, a doctor who later examined the case said, so it was up to the staff to make sure she was all right.
She went back to bed but sat up long enough around 3 p.m. to talk with Cook.
“The last words she spoke ... was she’s been having problems with blood pressure and threw up some more,” Cook said.
Curnell laid her head back down at 3:20 p.m. A half-hour later, as she lay on her stomach, she poked her arms out of the blanket. A podmate ate a snack nearby. She didn’t move.
At 4:40 p.m., another inmate said something. She didn’t move. Diehl-Moore felt Curnell’s back and hand. She didn’t move.
Her neck was still warm, but her arms were cold. The officer called for help. For 17 minutes, nurses and paramedics did CPR. An officer bowed his head nearby.
It was too late. A nurse covered her body with a blanket.
“It’s very clear that (the jail staff) recognized her sickness; they just didn’t act on it,” said Moore, the family attorney. “This woman was left to die in such a painful and undignified way.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Joyce Curnell died on July 22, within two hours of a brief checkup she had at the Charleston County jail.×
Joyce Curnell’s body is covered with a blanket July 22 at the Charleston County jail. Nurses and paramedics had done CPR for 17 minutes, but they could not revive her.×
Joyce Curnell often got up from her cot (far right) and went to the doorless bathroom stalls (left) to be sick. She would later die in her bed of a stomach illness.×
As Joyce Curnell vomited repeatedly, a correctional officer gave her a milk crate lined with a plastic bag.×