Judge overturns firing of prison nurse in inmate dehydration case
Posted March 6, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — A prison nursing supervisor fired after a mentally ill inmate died of dehydration last year will get her job back, a North Carolina judge ruled this week.
Jacqueline Clark appealed after state corrections officials last year dismissed her for unacceptable personal conduct and "grossly inefficient job performance" following the death of inmate Michael Kerr. In his decision, Administrative Law Judge Augustus Elkins wrote that, although Kerr's death was "tragic in every sense of the word," the state failed to prove that Clark violated policy or inadequately supervised staff in the days leading up to March 12, when Kerr was found dead in the back of an inmate transfer van at Central Prison.
Kerr, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder, was left handcuffed in solitary confinement for five days at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville before prison officials decided to move him to Central Prison. By then, the restraints were so caked with fecal matter, officers had to remove them with bolt cutters.
"This and other evidence evokes great emotion, but this case should and must be singularly focused on this Petitioner, who had assumed her Nurse Supervisor III role just two months prior to the death of Mr. Kerr," Elkins wrote.
A federal grand jury and the State Bureau of Investigation, which is overseen by the same administrative department as the prison system, are investigating the incident for possible criminal conduct.
Clark was one of 25 corrections officers, nurses and mental health staff disciplined at Alexander Correctional after an investigation by the Department of Public Safety. That includes 10 who resigned or received dismissals.
Several of those employees contested their firings, including a prison captain who lost his appeal in December.
Michael Byrne, a Raleigh attorney representing Clark and several other fired prison workers, said she was one of many disciplined, despite having only "tangential involvement" with Kerr before his death. Although he couldn't say when or if Clark would return to work, he said she's glad a judge agreed many of the state's allegations against her were false.
"The way DPS handled this took a bad and tragic situation and made it worse than it was, in that people innocent of any responsibility were nonetheless publicly blamed for it," Byrne said. "That was wrong."
DPS spokeswoman Pam Walker declined to comment on the ruling, saying by email that the department had not had time to review it.
"The department took all the personnel actions at Alexander CI, in relation to this case, based on a preponderance of evidence and testimony," Walker wrote.
Clark is entitled to full reinstatement, back pay and benefits for nearly a year off the job, as well as about $22,000 in attorney fees.
DPS has 30 days to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. State officials have not said whether they plan to appeal.