(NaturalNews) Even for prison inmates, doctors and other medical personnel are still bound by their Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. But one prison physician and a pair of staffers are being dismissed by the Kentucky State Penitentiary system after an inmate there starved himself to death.
According to a report by The Associated Press (AP), the case lays bare lapses in medical treatment as well as the way in which hunger strikes are handled at the institution. Prison officials have asked prosecutors to investigate both the starvation incident and the conditions surrounding it after the AP started asking questions about the death of the inmate:
James Kenneth Embry, 57 and with just three years left on a nine-year sentence for drug offenses, began to spiral out of control in the spring of 2013 after he stopped taking anti-anxiety medication. Seven months later, in December, after weeks of erratic behavior -- from telling prison staff he felt anxious and paranoid to banging his head on his cell door -- Embry eventually refused most of his meals. By the time of his death in January of this year, he had shed more than 30 pounds on his 6-foot frame and died weighing just 138 pounds, according to documents reviewed by the AP.
'It's just very disturbing'
A resultant internal investigation into Embry's death found that medical personnel at the prison did not give him his medication -- which investigators say may have helped him keep his suicidal thoughts under control. They also found that officials did not take the proper steps to check on him, especially as his condition got worse.
The internal review also uncovered wider problems involving the way inmates are treated, which included the failure to regularly check them on medical rounds, as well as communication lapses among the medical staff.
According to records obtained by the AP, the prison medical and supervisory staff had ample opportunities to intervene to stave off Embry's death but allegedly failed to do so.
"It's just very, very, very disturbing," Greg Belzley, a Louisville, Ky.-based attorney who specializes in inmate rights litigation and reviewed some of the documents obtained by the AP, told the newswire service. "How do you just watch a man starve to death?"
The internal investigation report said that Embry stopped taking his anti-anxiety medications around May 2013. Seven months after, Embry told the lead prison psychologist, Jean Hinkebine, that he had begun to feel anxious and paranoid and wished to begin taking his medications again. But the psychologist concluded that the inmate did not have significant mental health issues that would warrant re-starting his medications, despite the fact that Embry talked repeatedly about wanting to cause harm to himself. The psychologist and an associate deemed his comments vague and declined to prescribe his meds.
Within seven days, on Dec. 10, Embry started banging his head on his cell door and was then moved to an observation cell; there, he began refusing meals and told the prison psychologist, "I don't have any hope."
'The hunger strike was though to end after the inmate drank tea'
Soon after, reports said that Embry began refusing most food, but he would occasionally drink tea, all the while continually threatening to hurt himself. On Jan. 4, the AP reported, a nurse checked on him and found him to be shaky and weak. At that point, the nurse advised him to resume eating, but he responded that it had been too long for him to start taking in food again.
Nine days later, on the same day he died, an advanced practice registered nurse named Bob Wilkinson refused a request from other medical staffers to move him to the infirmary; that was at 11:51 a.m. He also said the inmate should be taken off hunger-strike watch. Hours later, guards found Embry unresponsive in his cell; he was pronounced dead at 5:29 p.m.
As further noted by the AP:
On Jan. 16, three days after Embry's death, Steve Hiland, the lead physician at the maximum-security prison, signed off on a nurse's note about Embry consistently refusing food and being taken off of the hunger strike watch because he drank tea. During the internal investigation, Hiland said he believed a hunger strike consisted of missing "six or eight meals" and ended when the inmate ate or drank anything at all.