The death of Sandra Bland, who died mysteriously in a Texas jail, may have made national headlines, but unfortunately jail deaths are a common occurrence.
Natasha McKenna, a 37-year-old Black woman with a history of mental illness, died after Fairfax County deputies tasered her while she was shackled. However, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh has declined to file charges against the deputies.
“Ms. McKenna’s death was a tragic accident. It is my legal opinion that there is not probable cause, much less proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that anyone involved in this case committed a crime,” said Morrogh in a report on the case.
McKenna, all of 130 pounds, was subdued by six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, dressed in white full-body biohazard suits and gas masks. Reportedly, McKenna wouldn’t bend her knees so she could be placed into a wheeled restraint chair. A lieutenant delivered four 50,000-volt shocks from a Taser. McKenna reportedly yelled, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!”
McKenna’s mother, Marlene Williams, accused the jail guards of failing to account for her daughter’s mental illness.
“They didn’t need to confront her this way. They made it worse,” Williams told The Huffington Post. “She was mentally sick.”
An autopsy report stated several factors contributed to McKenna’s death.
“In the end, it was Ms. McKenna’s severe mental illness, coupled with the tremendous physical exertion she put forth over an extended period of time struggling with deputies that resulted in a cascade of lethal chemical reactions inside of her body,” the report said.
McKenna’s death is still the subject of a federal investigation. Her death has already caused changes. The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department said it has suspended the use of stun guns. Last month a Washington Post editorial lambasted police for overusing Tasers, saying that the Taser company has recommended the device not be used more than three times on a person and police should avoid using them on mentally ill people.
The death of civilians at the hands of authorities wielding Tasers elsewhere has led to charges. This week, two former police officers were charged with murder and aggravated assault in the death of a man in Georgia who was also shocked repeatedly with a Taser after being handcuffed.
Jail deaths are an all too common occurrence in the United States. Apart from the deaths of McKenna and Bland, another inmate, Samuel Harrell, was recently killed after being beat by up to 20 guards at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York. Harrell was assaulted by a group of prison guards who inmates called “the Beat up Squad.” One of the guards in the group, Sgt. Joseph Guarino, has been sued multiple times by inmates and gets about 30 grievances filed against him per year.
The New York Times also reported several inmates at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. were tortured by prison guards who were trying to find out information about two inmates involved in a high-profile escape.