Attorneys: Charleston jail's health care provider deprived woman of water

Joyce Curnell was found dead in a Charleston County jail cell in July after being treated for a stomach flu. Attorneys allege medical staff at the jail did not render aid to save her life. (Provided)

Attorneys for a woman who died in the care of the Charleston County detention center last summer say care givers there deprived her of water and medical help that could have saved her life.

Joyce Curnell of Edisto Island was arrested last July for an outstanding bench warrant connected to a shoplifting charge. Sheriff's office paperwork shows it was Curnell's son who called police and told them where to find his mother and make the arrest for her outstanding warrant.

After being cared for at Roper Hospital for a stomach flu, she was lodged in the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center.

A day later, on July 22, 2015, she was found dead, attorneys representing Curnell said.

"Simply put, Ms. Curnell died because she was deprived of water. She was too sick to tolerate the dehydration as a result of acute gastroenteritis," said Medical University of South Carolina physician Maria Gibson in an affidavit quoted on the law firm's website.

Gibson went on to say that proper care would have most likely prevented Curnell's death. The filing says Curnell suffered from sickle cell disease, and could have faced more risk for dehydration as a result.

"It is incomprehensible that ... we have members of our community suffering and dying from thirst and dehydration. Joyce's death was not a result of mere negligence, but a conscious, deliberate failure to provide her with the most basic of medical care," said Attorney James B. Moore III.

"Providing access to reasonable medical care to those under police custody is a necessity, not a privilege. It is a Constitutional right."

The law firm names Carolina Center for Occupational Health, the private medical group that has a contract with the Charleston County Sheriff's Office to provide all medical care to detainees, as the defendant in the case.

Curnell's son, Javon, called 911 the day after his mother went to the hospital. He told the dispatcher she was drinking herself to death and that he wanted to save her by turning her in on the outstanding warrant. He said hopefully she would be able to detox in jail.

"She's my mom but I'm trying to help her, trying to help her," Javon Curnell is heard saying on the 911 call. "She won't listen. She drinks a lot. Before I have to bury her ... She has that little warrant over her. That will give her a little time ..."

Attorneys accuse the care providers of not giving Curnell access to medication prescribed by Roper Hospital's doctors and ignoring multiple calls for help by deputies working at the jail.

The suit alleges Curnell was too weak to go to the bathroom or call for help on her own during her 27 hours of her incarceration. But attorneys who filed the suit on Curnell's behalf say there is no evidence any medical personnel at the jail offered her care or did anything to prevent dehydration.

"This is not a situation in which Joyce needed access to cutting edge medical care to save her life. She needed fluids and the attention of a doctor. Not only has nobody been prosecuted in connection with Joyce's death, it does not appear that any employee has even been reprimanded," said attorney Scott C. Evans.

Curnell died nine days after Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell, a month in which at least six African-American women were found unresponsive while in police custody.

The ACLU said it would have representatives monitoring the case as it progressed.

"It is very unfortunate to hear of another death of an African-American while in police custody. It is alleged that Joyce Curnell died of deprivation of medical care. SC law requires officials to render medical aid whenever necessary to sick inmates," the group said in a statement.

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