​Inmate Starved Himself To Death At Kentucky State Penitentiary

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April 22, 2021

An inmate has starved himself to death at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, and a prison actor has been fired along with two other staffers. The inmate, James Kenneth Embry, was on a hunger strike.

It’s a case that has exposed lapses in medical treatment and in how hunger strikes are handled at the facility. Prison officials have asked prosecutors to investigate the inmate’s death.

Embry, 57 and with just three years left on a nine-year sentence for drug offenses, began to spiral out of control in the spring of 2013 after he stopped taking anti-anxiety medication.

Seven months later, in December, after weeks of erratic behavior — from telling prison staff he felt anxious and paranoid to banging his head on his cell door — Embry eventually refused most of his meals and starved.

By the time of his death in January of this year, he had shed more than 30 pounds on his 6-foot frame and died weighing just 138 pounds, according to documents reviewed by the AP.

An internal investigation determined that medical personnel failed to provide him medication that may have kept his suicidal thoughts at bay and didn’t take steps to check on him as his condition worsened.

“It’s just very, very, very disturbing,” said Greg Belzley, a Louisville, Ky.-based attorney who specializes in inmate rights litigation and reviewed some of the documents obtained by the AP. “How do you just watch a man starve to death?”

According to the report of the internal investigation, Embry stopped taking medications for anxiety in May 2013. Seven months later, he told the lead prison psychologist, Jean Hinkebein, on Dec. 3 that he felt anxious and paranoid and wanted to restart those medications. However, the psychologist concluded Embry didn’t have any significant mental health issues even though Embry repeatedly talked about wanting to hurt himself.

Hinkebein and an associate considered his comments vague, and his request for medication was denied.

Seven days later, on Dec. 10, Embry began banging his head on his cell door and was moved to an observation cell where he refused meals and told the prison psychologist, “I don’t have any hope.”

He soon began refusing most food, though he drank tea on occasion while continuing to make threats to hurt himself in the ensuing weeks before he starved himself to death.

A nurse checked on Embry on Jan. 4, finding him weak and shaky, and advised him to resume eating. Nine days later, on the very day he died, an advanced practice registered nurse named Bob Wilkinson refused a request from other medical staffers to move him to the infirmary at 11:51 a.m. and said the inmate should be taken off a hunger strike watch. Guards found Embry unresponsive in his cell hours later, his head slumped to the side.