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Neglect is killing people in Florida’s Leon County jail

By Kristin Ervin |
June 3, 2021
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Tallahassee, FL - This spring, Tallahassee Community Action Committee (TCAC) commemorated the one-year anniversaries of the police murders of Mychael Johnson, Wilbon Woodard and Tony McDade. While these police murders garnered significant attention, the deaths of two other Black men in law enforcement custody in 2020 went largely unnoticed. 43-year-old Little Daniel Owens and 66-year-old Melvin Richardson died inside the Leon County jail in November 2020. The Leon County Sheriff’s Office posted barebones announcements of their deaths on social media and released no additional information.

Public records requests about the two deaths reveal a disturbing view of the treatment and conditions inside the jail. Melvin Richardson died three days after being returned to the jail from the hospital where he was treated for septic shock and pneumonia. The report from the last day of Melvin’s life describes his cell as having food, trash and feces scattered around the floor, bunk and toilet, and Melvin lying under his bunk grunting and waving his arms. The state of the cell and Melvin’s behavior were reported as being “normal” and jail staff did not know if he was eating or taking his medications. Despite the appalling conditions of Melvin’s confinement, an internal investigation determined his death was a result of natural causes and “failure to thrive.”

Public records requests showed that just weeks before Melvin died, another man, Little Daniel Owens, hung himself with a bed sheet in one of the jail’s isolation cells while awaiting trial. Court records show that he had been Baker Acted (involuntary commitment) and incarcerated for violent crimes several times in Leon County over the past two decades.

Both Little Daniel Owens and Melvin Richardson desperately needed mental health care and support services, but the local government responded only with policing, criminalization, isolation and severe medical neglect.

The U.S. criminal injustice system sells a myth that punishing crime is the most effective way to prevent crime. There is very little evidence to support the notion that punishment, or the threat of punishment, prevents crime. The truth is that throwing someone in jail, cutting them off from their family and support systems, keeping them in dehumanizing and inhumane conditions, exploiting their labor, and then kicking them out the side door into the same struggle as before isn’t helping anyone. Especially when a 'convict' label makes it even harder to get quality jobs and housing or qualify for public assistance upon release.

The U.S. has only 5% of the world population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are some of the key drivers of crime, but the current capitalist system is not addressing those drivers; it’s perpetuating them. People who are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, poverty and houselessness need social support, not criminalization and punishment. A humane society cannot rely on police and prisons as tools for treating human suffering. Social problems that are rooted in racism and inequality cannot be solved by disappearing community members behind detention center walls.

Nationwide, focus and funding are needed to provide access to mental health care, affordable housing and education, and to stop criminalization that disproportionately harms communities of color. Locally and urgently, Tallahassee deserves transparency and accountability from the Leon County Sheriff’s office for its role in the deaths of two incarcerated community members. LCSO must:

-- Release data on how many have died in the jail prior to 2020, and detail what LCSO is doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

-- Release data on how many people are being kept in long-term isolation.

-- End the contract with Corizon, a private, for-profit health care contractor that has been sued for medical malpractice in multiple states including Florida.

-- Stop making it harder and more expensive for incarcerated people to stay connected with family and loved ones.

-- Stop exploiting the labor of incarcerated people.

-- Provide access to quality food, medical and mental health care.

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