- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - After an inmate starved to death at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in January, corrections officials concluded that the medical staff failed to cooperate with each other and follow the policies in place to deal with a prisoner who was refusing to eat or drink.

Now, said Jim Erwin, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections, policies and procedures are in place to prevent a repeat of James Kenneth Embry’s slow suicide. Erwin, speaking to the Interim Joint Committee on State Government on Wednesday, said medical personnel meet weekly to review cases of inmates, policies have been clarified, and the medical staff is under tighter supervision.

“The new policy is very explicit as to what constitutes a hunger strike,” Erwin said.

The legislative hearing came eight months after Embry’s death. Embry, 57, died after refusing 35 of 36 meals and dropping 32 pounds in the last month of his life. He had told medical personnel he no longer had hope and in addition to starving himself repeatedly beat his head on the prison doors. He had about three years left to serve on a nine-year sentence.

A recent story by The Associated Press revealed Embry’s hunger strike and January death at the maximum-security facility in Eddyville. An internal review by the Corrections Department found instances of doctors not seeing patients, staff not communicating with each other and policies being disregarded or overruled by doctors.

The death and story touched off a round of firings - two doctors and another medical professional have been dismissed, and a nurse working on contract has been barred from the prison - as well as the prospect of civil litigation. A criminal investigation into the death by Kentucky State Police is ongoing. Lyon County Commonwealth’s Attorney G.L. Ovey did not immediately return a message inquiring about the status of the investigation.

The state has also brought in a new company, CorrectCare Solutions of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to run health care services for inmates at the state’s 12 adult institutions.

The ongoing criminal investigation nearly cut the hearing short. Lawmakers considered not asking the Corrections Department questions that might overlap with the scope of the probe, but pressed on after concluding there was some information that could be made public.

State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, quizzed Erwin on a variety of fronts about Embry’s death, including how it happened and what the agency did to correct the issues found afterward. Yonts noted that, on the day Embry died, five medical staffers did not show up for work. Yonts also said doctors were supposed to walk the cellblock halls and check on inmates as they went.

“That was already in place and they weren’t doing it,” Yonts said.

Instead, the medical staff was seen on video breezing by cell doors without stopping, Yonts said.

Erwin noted that the videos are now being reviewed at least three times a week.

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, asked Erwin about what protocol was in place when Embry died.

“I am having a difficult time wrapping my head around an inmate dying of starvation,” Owens said.

Erwin noted that at the time Embry died, there was a method of evaluation, treatment and intervention in place, but it wasn’t very specific - and it wasn’t followed.

“There were very clear violations of policy and protocols,” Erwin said.

Since then, the state has adopted a lengthier and more specific method of dealing with inmates who refuse food, and staff has and is being trained on how to handle those situations, Erwin said.

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Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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