Son’s bid to save mom took tragic turn

Joyce Curnell, 50, is seen July 21, when she was booked into the Charleston County jail. She died of an illness the next day.

Joyce Curnell’s son was worried.

His mother had been living in a mobile home with no water, no electricity. An alcoholic who had tried to get sober, she had started drinking heavily again.

Javon Curnell wanted to save his mother from herself.

So when she was taken to an emergency room with a stomach bug in July 2015, he saw an opportunity. He dialed 911 to report that his mother had a warrant out for her arrest; she was at a hospital in West Ashley.

“She needs some time to detox herself,” he said in the call. “She’s my mom, but I’m trying to help her. She won’t listen. ... Before I have to bury her, I’d rather she go” to jail.

She went to Charleston County’s jail that day to face a charge of failing to pay all of the nearly $2,200 in fines for the $20 worth of beer and candy bars she stole four years earlier. But at the Cannon Detention Center, her family said this week, the care she got fell short of what her son had hoped for.

Joyce Curnell, 50, died a day later as a result of the stomach illness that sent her to the hospital in the first place. Her son would bury her after all.

While her son now intends to sue the jail’s medical contractor, Curnell’s death has raised fresh questions about how black inmates are treated behind bars. The circumstances of the case, revealed in court documents this week, stoked some community members to organize a protest, set for 11:30 a.m. Friday in Marion Square. The County Council’s chairman, Elliott Summey, vowed Thursday to take the allegations seriously and look into them further.

“When someone has a family member he can’t seem to help, he might think the authorities are going to help,” said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP. “But someone failed this woman. They failed her miserably.”

Citing a coroner’s ruling last year that Curnell’s death was natural, the State Law Enforcement Division has closed its investigation into the case. But statements contained in the agency’s final report, obtained Thursday through a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request, showed how the jail’s medical staffers may have underestimated the extent of Curnell’s sickness in accounts that varied widely from ones given by officers and inmates. Most witnesses, except for the nurses and doctors, described her as constantly vomiting and weak. At one point, she asked for her medication and didn’t get it.

The Carolina Center for Occupational Health has been the jail’s health provider for the past six years. Jay Davis Jr., an attorney for the company, said in a statement Thursday that his firm and his client had not yet fully investigated the allegations.

“Therefore, we do not feel it would be appropriate to comment at this time, especially in light of federal health care privacy laws,” Davis said. “We wish to express our sincere sympathy to the family of Joyce Curnell on their loss.”

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail, released reports Thursday indicating its role in the events before Curnell’s death. But Maj. Eric Watson said the agency’s comments would be limited. The agency likely would be targeted in the lawsuit.

“Our agency has made many advances in ensuring that we consistently provide a healthy environment for all prisoners regardless of their circumstances,” a sheriff’s statement said. “The reverence of life is paramount to the mission of the Sheriff’s Office.”

But local residents such as Stephen Corson, one of the organizers of the planned demonstration in Charleston, said the case served as a call for change in how inmates are treated.

“It’s outrageous that this can occur in the modern age,” he said. “It occurs not only in our community but in communities nationwide. Someone needs to say something.”

Curnell is a distant cousin to Denzel Curnell, the 19-year-old who died of what authorities said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound during a June 2014 struggle with a Charleston police officer. His death spawned small protests and scrutiny of how police single out pedestrians for stops.

Curnell’s son wanted to remain anonymous when he called dispatchers about 1 p.m. July 21 as his mother was diagnosed at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital with gastroenteritis. But he gave his name during the 911 call, saying he just wanted to save his mom before she was discharged.

“I would like an officer,” he said. “She’s at the hospital right now.”

Joyce Curnell had never been jailed in South Carolina before, but she quickly admitted to a Charleston police officer that she was wanted. She was about halfway through paying her fines when she stopped in 2013, triggering the warrant. Doctors gave her instructions to overcome her illness, and sheriff’s deputies drove her to the jail.

A doctor in the jail’s medical unit prescribed her Zofran for nausea and Tylenol for a headache, to be taken as needed. But the SLED documents, which summarize interviews with jailers, inmates and medical staffers, portrayed what happened over the next day.

She met a woman she knew. The inmate later told SLED that Curnell looked sick. The woman knew that Curnell once drank heavily and feared she might be suffering effects of detoxification.

Curnell started vomiting, and it didn’t let up. A commanding officer brought her a milk crate with some plastic bags to catch her vomit. She told another officer that she needed to take her medication. It was downstairs.

“I asked her if she was able to walk to the kiosk to put in a sick call,” the officer told SLED, “and she stated she couldn’t and would do it later.”

After 1:30 a.m. on July 22, the officer called a nurse, who said that another staffer would be around to check diabetic inmates’ sugar levels and would examine Curnell then.

The nurse showed up about 5 a.m. and, she later told investigators, saw Curnell rocking back and forth in bed. Other inmates and jailers told the nurse that they suspected Curnell “was detoxing.”

The nurse took their word as to what ailed Curnell. There was no mention of a stomach sickness.

The staffer didn’t take a closer look at Curnell and said she couldn’t give out any medication anyway because that took a doctor’s orders, she later told SLED. The nurse told the jailers to contact the medical unit if the problem got worse.

Curnell saw no medical attention that night.

As the morning wore on, the fellow inmate comforted Curnell and braided her hair. The inmate tried to help Curnell to the bathroom. She was still too weak and kept throwing up.

But a nurse who saw Curnell about 8 a.m. noted no issues with Curnell. When the nurse saw her again at 2 p.m., Curnell still had “no complaints or questions.”

Her inmate friend walked by her bed later that afternoon, but she lay still. Figuring she was sleeping, the inmate moved on. The inmate knew Curnell was dead when she later noticed a commotion around the bed.

An autopsy report pinned the cause of death on the stomach bug. Her underlying health problems, including alcoholism and sickle cell disease, were thought to have contributed.

But Curnell’s loved ones, an expert and a family attorney, James Moore III, said that giving her fluids for the vomiting-induced dehydration could have prevented her death.

“They left her in a cage like a dog,” her nephew, Joseph Singleton, said Thursday, recalling the family’s experience that week. “We heard she was in the emergency room, and then we heard she had died.”

Dave Munday and Paul Bowers contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or