Hospitalized woman deprived of water, died in jail after arrest for unpaid fines

© Brendan McDermid
A South Carolina woman suffering from a stomach illness, who was arrested in a hospital and placed in a Charleston County jail cell, died due to a lack of proper medical attention and basic access to water, her family says.

The July 22 death of Joyce Curnell, 50, a black woman from Edisto Island, came about after medical staff at the jail ignored official requests for the woman to receive attention, her family said in court documents filed this week, according to the Post and Courier. The family's attorney called the death a "deliberate failure."

“Providing access to reasonable medical care to those under police custody is a necessity, not a privilege,” said James Moore III in a statement. “It is a constitutional right. We are committed to seeking justice for Joyce and for her family.”

The court filing ‒ part of a planned lawsuit in state court ‒ included an expert opinion from a local doctor that posited that Curnell's death could have been avoided if she had received proper medical attention for gastroenteritis and dehydration.

On July 21, Curnell was taken by ambulance to Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, due to a bout with nausea and vomiting, the Post and Courier reported. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and given proper hydration and medications.

While there, it was discovered that she had a bench warrant from 2011 based on a shoplifting charge that involved about $20 worth of beer and candy. Curnell had stopped paying installments on a court-fine payment plan in early 2013 after nine months of attempting to pay off the approximately $2,200 in fines she had accrued. An arrest warrant was eventually issued in August 2014.

Curnell's son called 911 to report his mother's arrest warrant while she was in the hospital in an attempt to try to help his mother get "some time to detox," the paper reported Thursday. In addition to her stomach illness, Curnell was also battling alcoholism and sickle cell anemia.

Javon Curnell told WCBD that he called police because he felt it was the only way to help his mother.

Officers with the Charleston County Sheriff's Office arrived at the hospital and arrested her once she was discharged.

Taken directly to jail, Curnell was examined by a nurse, who told State Law Enforcement Division investigators that Curnell had only complained of a headache despite the hospital's instructions for her sustained care. The court documents filed by Curnell's family say the jail's medical staff did not follow the hospital's recommendations for her care.

Curnell was eventually taken to a regular jail cell and not its medical facility, the documents said. She vomited "through the night" and "couldn't make it to the bathroom," jail staff said, according to the court filings. Jail officers only gave her a trash bag. They said they had notified medical staff, but they “refused to provide any medical attention to [her] whatsoever," the filings said.

Curnell was not given water or intravenous fluids to counter dehydration, the documents claim.

“Simply put, Ms. Curnell died because she was deprived of water," said Maria Gibson, the Medical University Hospital primary care doctor who served as an expert medical witness for Curnell's family.

Curnell's son, Javon, who notified police of her outstanding warrant, said he plans to sue the jail's medical contractor, Carolina Center for Occupational Health, which is investigating the family's accusations.

“Therefore, we do not feel it would be appropriate to comment at this time, especially in light of federal health care privacy laws,” said the company's attorney, Jay Davis Jr., according to the Post and Courier. “We wish to express our sincere sympathy to the family of Joyce Curnell on their loss.”

The SLED investigation into Curnell's death has been closed, given a coroner's ruling that she died of natural causes. Revealed Thursday following a state Freedom of Information Act request, the probe found that Curnell had asked for medical attention but did not receive it, and that all witnesses except the doctors and nurses at the jail said she was weak and constantly vomiting.

Curnell's family and attorney say if the jail had just given her attention for dehydration, she would not have died.

“They left her in a cage like a dog,” Curnell's nephew, Joseph Singleton, told the Post and Courier. “We heard she was in the emergency room, and then we heard she had died.”

The county sheriff's office has released reports on its place in the events that led to Curnell's death. In a statement, the office said it "has made many advances in ensuring that we consistently provide a healthy environment for all prisoners regardless of their circumstances."