State News

Sister of inmate who died of thirst encourages reform

Posted July 22, 2015

 Central Prison in Raleigh.

— The sister of a mentally ill Army veteran who died of thirst after he was left handcuffed in his cell for five days last year said she believes his death will mean better treatment for mentally ill inmates in the state.

Michael Anthony Kerr, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder that went untreated for at least six months, was found dead on March 12, 2014, after correctional officers transported him to Central Prison in Raleigh. For more than a month before his death, he had been held in solitary confinement at Alexander Correctional Institution.

Kerr was serving a 31-year sentence for firing a weapon at private property and repeated felony convictions.

His sister, Brenda Liles, called prison officials repeatedly to report problems with his treatment at the facility in the days leading up to his death. And in the weeks that followed, she demanded answers in phone calls to Department of Public Safety officials and publicly in interviews with reporters.

 The final days of Michael Kerr

Liles said she believes her brother's death is a major factor in the prison system's effort to reform the treatment of inmates with mental health issues, which as of October 2014 made up about 12 percent of the prison population and 20 percent of those housed in solitary confinement.

"I feel like I was able to make a difference for other mentally ill inmates so the death of my brother wasn't in vain," Liles said Wednesday. "I realize that one person can make a difference for other people."

DPS announced Monday it was settling with the family of Michael Kerr for $2.5 million to avoid a wrongful death lawsuit. Liles was not included in that settlement, according to the agreement document.

In its announcement, the department noted its efforts to improve the treatment of inmates with mental illness, including ongoing crisis-intervention training that can reduce potentially violent confrontations between officers and prison populations.

Liles said she thinks the department will follow through with reform, given the settlement and the attention her brother's case has received so far.

"It's letting the prison system know the prisoners in there are serving their time and shouldn't be treated like they're not human beings," Liles said.

Prison leaders, including Commissioner David Guice, have spent months asking the legislature for more funding to improve mental health services.

"It's very important for folks to realize we have got to address the mental health needs in our system differently than we have in the past," Guice said in an interview with WRAL News in early July. "We can no longer not take action when action needs to be taken."

Lawmakers in the state House and Senate appear likely to move on the issue as they hammer out a budget compromise in the coming days.

In competing versions of their budget proposals, both chambers would direct about $4 million over the next two years for 66 new positions at the Central Prison mental health facility in Raleigh to open another 72 beds. But they differ on funding for additional positions for mental health treatment at other facilities.

The Senate version would spend $2.2 million on a treatment unit at Maury Correctional Institution near Greenville to better assess mental health issues. The House, however, would opt to devote nearly four times that amount on treatment units at eight maximum security prisons across the state.

Guice said he's confident the two chambers can reach a compromise that will mean better outcomes for inmates.

"The goal is, quite simply, for a person coming to us to leave us better off," Guice said.

Liles said she believes her brother's death put a spotlight on the treatment of mentally ill inmates and helped move the state toward solutions.

"Sometimes when people go to prison, they think they don't have family members outside who care, who will fight for him," Liles said. "Michael Anthony Kerr had family members who loved him, who fought for him after his death."


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