Marcus Penman’s family is holding Kentucky prison officials accountable after the mentally ill man suffered a death so brutal that it’s difficult to imagine.
"Penman spent his last moments on this Earth, soaked in pepper spray, shackled, in darkness, desperately trying to breathe, and clinging to life," attorneys representing his widow, Alice Penman, wrote in a civil lawsuit the family has been waging for the past five years.
Alice told USA Today that she learned about her husband’s death on the news, and it was reported as a suicide. She says she didn’t believe it then—or now.
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Marcus Penman, 39, had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2005 for a drug-related charge. When he was first incarcerated, he was reported to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, antisocial disorder, and ADHD.
On the day he died, April 25, 2017, he was having a mental health crisis and slamming his head against the cell door.
Kentucky prison guards did not attempt to calm him down, and no mental health providers were notified. Penman was instead pepper-sprayed multiple times and tased (including one electric shock lasting 18 seconds), and a team of guards without a day of training dragged him out of his cell. He was forced into a restraining chair, where he was choked by one officer and a spit hood was used to cover his face as he gagged on pepper spray. Even after his body became motionless, one guard continued to use a stun shield against his face, the lawsuit alleges.
For a full 10 minutes after Penman stopped breathing, no aid was given.
But Penman’s treatment isn’t surprising. It’s endemic in prisons and jails around the country.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate barriers to treatment for the severely mentally ill, in 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric. hospital. Individuals with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be in a jail or prison than mental health facilities. There are 383,000 inmates with mental illness in jails and prisons today.
And mental illness among inmates often goes unreported.
"His symptoms were being dismissed and ignored in part because of these pressures to not officially acknowledge individuals' challenges," Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq, the Treatment Advocacy Center's research director, told USA Today.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections claims that Penman was restrained because he had been fighting and assaulting staff.
"Corrections staff had to stop Mr. Penman from continuing to injure himself because corrections staff have a duty to protect inmates — even from themselves," attorneys for the defendants wrote in court filings.
None of the prison guards or officials involved in Penman’s death were indicted, as the evidence presented to a Lyon County, Kentucky, grand jury in April 2018 did not sway them. They found "no evidence of any criminal conduct," according to Kentucky State Police records obtained by USA Today in a public records request.
And even though the medical examiner found that Penman suffered from partial lung collapse, his eyes were speckled with broken blood vessels from lack of oxygen, and his death was ruled a homicide from asphyxiation due to neck compression with blunt force trauma to the head, a news release from Kentucky State Police reported that "the only signs of trauma appear to have been self-inflicted."
"He's a symptom of a situation that exists throughout our country," John Rees, the former commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, told USA Today. "Our mental health system does not work when it comes to violent, mentally ill individuals, period."
Penman was never treated for his mental health issues, court records show. He was suicidal and his medications weren’t appropriate for his diagnosis.
On the day before his death, he went on a hunger strike. The mental health counselor accused him of intentionally "trying to present as psychotic" and "trying to confuse this clinician" by speaking in coded language about "they" being out to get him.
And on the day of his death, he was placed in solitary confinement.
"We've got the most vulnerable people in the most violent settings with the least qualified administrative people around them, trying to manage them and do the right thing in the face of a severe psychotic and psychiatric crisis," Dominic Sisti, an assistant professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told USA Today. "And that’s just a recipe for brutality."