Joyce Curnell, a 50-year-old black woman from South Carolina, died in jail last summer less than two weeks after a much more widely reported but similar-sounding incident: the suicide of Sandra Bland. Bland had been pulled over in Texas for failing to signal a lane change; Curnell had been arrested on a bench warrant related to a shoplifting incident from four years earlier. Both women were dead within days of being booked. Together, their cases appeared to be part of a pattern: Black people, and black women in particular, were dying in local jails after being locked up on minor charges. During the month of July 2015 alone, three other such cases were reported.
On Wednesday, the Curnell family filed documents indicating their intention to sue the medical contractor for the Charleston County jail, which they accuse of depriving Curnell of water and medical attention despite unambiguous indications that she was unwell.
There are at least two shocking aspects to the story as described in the documents.
The first is that Curnell was arrested as a direct result of checking into a hospital emergency room. According to Curnell family lawyers, Curnell had been complaining of nausea and vomiting when she was taken to an ER in an ambulance and diagnosed with gastroenteritis. It was during her two-hour stay at Roper St. Francis Hospital that, as the Post and Courier puts it, “it was discovered” that there was a bench warrant for her arrest stemming from a little more than $1,000 in unpaid court fees. How exactly that discovery was made is unclear—do police in Charleston run people’s names for outstanding warrants when they check into hospitals?—but it resulted in the arrival of deputies from the sheriff’s office who took Curnell directly to jail after she was discharged by doctors.
The second shocking aspect of Curnell’s story is that, according to Wednesday’s court filings, she spent her night in jail vomiting continuously but was not given proper medical attention. Instead, the documents allege, jail staff provided her with a trash bag because she could not make it to the bathroom. She was found dead the next day.
The case will likely turn on what the family can prove about the exact cause of Curnell’s death, and what the nurses at the Charleston County Detention Center did and did not do during the 27 hours that Curnell was in custody. The basic allegation, as stated in Wednesday’s court filing, is that Curnell died “because she was deprived of water” and denied the medication that had been prescribed to her during her hospital stay.
One key thing to note is that the target of the legal action here is not the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, but the private medical company that is contracted to provide medical care to all Charleston County detainees. That company, the Carolina Center for Occupational Health, stands accused of ignoring jailhouse staff when they asked for Curnell to be examined.
The Post and Courier reported that three telephone calls and an email to the contractor went unreturned Wednesday. A representative of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail where Curnell died, told the paper he had just learned of the court filings and declined to comment.