The chain of events that led to the death of a black woman in a South Carolina jail in July began with a desperate bid to save her life from alcoholism.
When details of Joyce Curnell’s death at the Charleston County jail surfaced last week in court documents, they drew broad condemnation. Curnell, 50, had been arrested a day earlier while seeking care at a hospital for a stomach illness.
Lawyers working for the woman’s family, which is preparing a lawsuit, said she could have been saved if she had been given adequate medical care.
Others wondered how officers had come to arrest Curnell, after she checked into an emergency room, on a bench warrant stemming from about $1,150 in fines she had failed to pay over the theft of some candy and beer in 2011.
On Thursday, the case came more clearly into focus. The police said the woman’s son, Javon Curnell, had called 911 to tell them she had an open warrant and was at the hospital. The family’s attorneys, James B. Moore III and Scott C. Evans, said Javon Curnell and his sister were trying to help their mother get alcohol out of her system and resolve her open warrant.
On a recording of the 911 call, Javon Curnell said he would rather she go to jail “before I have to bury her.”
“She’s my mom, but I’m trying to help her. She won’t listen, she drinks a lot,” he told the dispatcher, according to the recording obtained by the Post and Courier. “She needs some time to detox herself.”
Instead, she died the next day at the Charleston jail. Many of the questions about Curnell’s time at the jail, where she was brought on the day of her arrest, remain unanswered.
Curnell’s death occurred in the same month as the reported deaths of four other black women in police custody, including Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in a Texas jail cell in a case that captured national attention and led to multiple investigations.
An autopsy ruled that Curnell succumbed to gastroenteritis, the inflammation of the stomach and intestines that had prompted her visit to the emergency room, according to police and court documents. But her underlying health problems of sickle cell disease, alcoholism, and hypertension also played a role, it said.
Her family argues that her death on July 22 was preventable, caused by a lack of proper care at the jail. Dr. Maria V. Gibson, an medical expert hired by the family, said she believed Curnell died “because she was deprived of water.”
In a legal filing, Gibson wrote, “Had Ms. Curnell been timely evaluated by a medical professional and properly treated for her gastroenteritis and dehydration, her deterioration and ultimate death would have, more likely than not based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty, been prevented.”
The family is preparing to sue the county, the sheriff’s office and the private medical provider that works with the jail.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it “takes the welfare and safety of its inmate population seriously.”
It pointed to a state police investigation, a standard procedure in police custody deaths, that determined that Curnell’s death was “natural.” A summary of the report, which includes interviews with detention officers, inmates, and nurses at the jail, indicates that some became concerned about Curnell’s health as she fell violently ill during her first night in custody. An inmate wondered whether she was suffering the effects of alcohol withdrawal.
Attorneys for Curnell’s family said she received little in the way of medical attention that night. Two inmates cited in the police report described an officer bringing Curnell a plastic bag to vomit in and noted she was too sick to make it to the bathroom on her own.
In the morning, she had trouble eating and continued to vomit.
The attorneys said there are no records or statements that show that Curnell was “offered oral hydration or IV hydration to prevent dehydration.”
The Carolina Center for Occupational Health, which provides health care at the jail, did not respond to requests for comment.
A march to demand accountability for Curnell’s death was held Friday morning in Charleston.
“This is not a situation in which Joyce needed access to cutting edge medical care to save her life,” Evans, the family lawyer, said in a statement. “She needed fluids and the attention of a doctor.”