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Victoria Rossi • March 3rd, 2021

Prisons mistreat loved ones’ belongings after their deaths, some families say

The following article is based on research conducted as part of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project’s investigative work. As part of our data collection efforts, we are conducting qualitative research in the form of accounts from people who are incarcerated, as well as those whose loved ones have fallen sick or died from COVID-19 or an unrelated illness during the pandemic.

Lonnie Hardy can’t shake the thought of his nephew’s last meal. Three weeks after Nevada correctional officers found Kenneth Rhone dead on the floor of his cell beside an unfinished bowl of oatmeal, four battered cardboard boxes arrived at Lonnie’s house. He opened the first box to see his nephew’s unwashed shirts and socks tossed in with a saltshaker, tennis shoes, and bags of ramen noodles. At the top of the heap was a dirty spoon and the bowl, still crusted over with oatmeal.

Lonnie shut the box; he wouldn’t open it again for days. Kenneth’s brother, who lived with Lonnie, couldn’t stand to see it either. He left the house and said he’d sleep elsewhere that night. “The way they threw Kenneth’s items in there, the bowl of oatmeal like that—he just thought it was totally disrespectful, Lonnie said. “And I thought it was too.”

He called his sister, Kenneth’s mother, who had specifically wanted to keep her son’s belongings after his death. “I told her what I saw and asked her what I should do. She told me to get rid of all of it.”

Several families say correctional staff have mishandled or neglected their relatives’ personal effects after their deaths, adding pain to already tragic circumstances. During the pandemic, more and more families have become familiar with the especially devastating consequences of losing a loved one behind bars, whether of COVID-19 or of other causes. 

Some feel that prisons’ treatment of these items after death mirrors the systems’ treatment of their loved ones in life. Jane wasn’t surprised to see a baby cockroach skitter from the box she’d retrieved of her fiancée Jerry’s belongings, given what she knew of conditions at the Martin Work Camp in South Florida. (Jane and Jerry are pseudonyms.) Until his death from acute pancreatitis this October, Jerry had lived in a dorm without air conditioning, and was sometimes served food labeled unfit for human consumption, she said. “There’s roaches, there’s rats. These are the things these guys live with every day.”

The Florida Department of Corrections denied an interview request, noting its policy that facilities must itemize and store the property of deceased residents in a secure area for a period of 30 days. The Nevada Department of Corrections, which held Kenneth Rhone at the Southern Desert Correctional Center until his death this August, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Meanwhile, some belongings are never returned. When her nephew, Aaron McDonald, died of a fentanyl overdose this July at Indiana State Prison, Susie Pérez hoped for two keepsakes to remember him by: the green stocking cap Aaron wore each winter, and the brown Buddhist prayer beads he was never without. 

After Aaron’s death, his cap and his prayer beads disappeared. So did a number of his other belongings: his sneakers, his notebooks, his busted radio and TV. Susie can only guess how. A friend of Aaron’s wrote to say he’d fought other prisoners in an effort to stop them from pulling items out of Aaron’s cell with a broom. Correctional officers broke up the fight but simply pushed the remaining items to the back of the cell, the friend wrote. Could the beads have come off before her nephew’s autopsy, Susie wondered, or been tossed away by the funeral home? She and her sister, Aaron’s mother, called everywhere to ask, but never received answers. Months later, when Indiana State Prison mailed Aaron’s mother an itemized list of his personal effects, almost nothing remained.

Susie didn’t mind the missing TV or sneakers; they’d planned to donate those anyway. But the prayer beads had been a part of Aaron, she said. She’d mailed them as a gift when he first joined a Buddhist meditation group in prison. They’d helped carry him through two years in solitary confinement, and more recently, intermittent lockdowns due to COVID-19. The beads “were about the kind of person he was striving to be. They represented a lot to him as far as how to treat people and how to live his life,” she said. “They were something really important to have back.”

When someone dies while incarcerated, other traumatic moments can linger in their family’s memories and complicate the grieving process. After Kenneth’s death—from cardiac arrest, according to autopsy records, though his family still has unanswered questions about his death—the funeral home lost track of his body, Lonnie said. A mix-up with his nephew’s last name took more than a month to resolve. By that point, his body had begun to liquify. The family abandoned plans for an in-person viewing and instead opted for cremation. Because Kenneth’s mother never saw his body or the belongings he’d kept while incarcerated, Lonnie said, “to this day she’s not even sure it’s her son who died. She doesn’t believe it.”

Some of these traumas could be avoided, Susie believes, if prison systems adopted more humane policies surrounding in-custody deaths. The warden who called to tell her of Aaron’s death was “so cold,” she said. “There was no sympathy, there was no caring.” She wondered why Indiana State Prison hadn’t used practices like those employed at the police station where she works, attempting to have chaplains deliver death notifications, or sending officers to notify families in person—approaches experts say can help minimize trauma. The Indiana Department of Corrections denied a request for an interview about its death notification policies and facilities’ treatment of deceased residents’ personal property and has not responded to a public records request seeking this information.

These issues predate the pandemic. In 2013, officials at Mule Creek State Prison in California cremated Joseph Duran’s body without telling his family that he had died in their custody; Joseph’s family only learned of his death through a reporter. It is hard to say if the pandemic, which has overwhelmed corrections systems and caused 2,464 deaths from COVID-19 alone as of March 1, has made these practices more widespread. Recognizing the need for a more sensitive response, some states have taken steps to improve certain policies surrounding prisoner deaths. For example, the California Department of Corrections has developed a script for officers to use when conducting death notifications.  However, more needs to be done, as families continue to cite instances of cruelty or negligence in the aftermath of their incarcerated loved ones’ deaths. 

“Normally when somebody passes and they’re not in Aaron’s situation, you feel like you’re allowed to have a grief process,” Susie added. “But when, in his case, he’s there in a prison, you don’t really get closure. One day you have your loved one and the next day he’s gone, and you don’t even have anything of his or anything that represented him and his life. It’s like he didn’t even deserve to have a life or deserve to have a family that grieved for him.”

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