by Billy Ball
A revised version of House Bill 281, which orders prison officials to turn over all records to medical examiners in the event of an inmate's death, has passed the N.C. House unanimously. It will now head to the state Senate.
Read about it in the Indy here, near the bottom of the news roundup.
The legislation was co-sponsored by House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Democrat from Durham, as well as two other Democrats and one Republican. It was written following the Indy's report last year on the death of Michael Kerr, a Sampson County man with a mental illness who died during a prison transfer following a month-long stay in solitary confinement. A medical examiner later determined that Kerr died of dehydration, offering some confirmation of witnesses' accounts that Kerr was left without eating or drinking in his isolated cell.
Hall's office said the medical examiners performing an autopsy on Kerr were slowed by their difficulty in obtaining records from the state Division of Adult Correction. "Like any investigation, the first 24 hours are the most important," Hall said.
The bill makes it mandatory that prison officials turn over "full and accurate" copies of all records, including those made after the inmate's death, upon request from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
However, a committee substitution that emerged from the House's standing Health Committee includes a stipulation that normally confidential mental health and medical records would remain confidential, since medical examiner's records are typically defined as public records. That version of the legislation is the one that passed the state House Thursday.
The public records concessions were likely made to appease state prison officials. N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker indicated this week that the department would be talking to the bill's authors about record confidentiality.
Hall's office said the revised bill now has the support of the Department of Corrections, as well as the chief medical examiner's office, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice.
Kerr's death spurred investigations by the State Bureau of Investigation, a federal grand jury and the nonprofit Disability Rights N.C., which concluded that state prisons suffered "severe deficiencies" in their care of the mentally ill.
Prison officials have announced numerous policy changes and terminations, while an ongoing task force is preparing recommendations on the controversial use of solitary confinement on prisoners with a mental illness.