When Capri James called the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer to confirm whether her son had died in the prison over the weekend, correctional staff refused to verify his death outright, citing protocol that only permitted the prison warden or chapel to acknowledge a departed inmate.
At this point, a number of incarcerated individuals at the facility had contacted her to say that her son, Kenneth James, who was serving a life sentence for a murder committed in Jefferson County, had died over the weekend. Her repeated attempts to get any information from the correctional staff at Donaldson went without any substantial confirmation. Due to the public holiday, the administrative staff would not be at the prison until Tuesday, when she was expected to receive a call.
“I was calling every 20 minutes for three days,” James said in an interview with APR on Wednesday. “His daughter’s birthday was on July. 3., and an inmate told me he passed on the 2nd. So his daughter was crying all day like, ‘there’s no way that my dad would not call me for my birthday.’ He would never not call her. So we wouldn’t tell her until we got confirmation.”
Later on July 5., James and other members of her family discovered reports online that an unidentified man at the Donaldson facility had died over the weekend, with the name not released due to correctional staff being unable to get in contact with the family. James knew it was her son and was furious that they would say they could not contact the family even after she had called so many times.
Kenneth had been incarcerated at Donaldson for over two years, having spent the last eight months in solitary confinement after being attacked by a group of incarcerated men, according to James.
James said that she learned later that one member of the group of inmates who attacked her son was romantically involved with a correctional officer — who James identified as Latasha Patrice Terrell, a former corrections officer recently charged with negligent homicide at Donaldson –, and that he believed Kenneth had flirted with the officer; leading to the attack.
After the attack, James said that when she contacted the prison, a corrections officer had laughed at her when she asked what had happened to her son. Kenneth begged her to get him out of solitary confinement for months following the attack.
The Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed to APR on Wednesday that Kenneth James, 36, was found unresponsive on the floor of his cell and later taken to the health care unit for further medical attention after life-saving measures were administered. He was pronounced dead soon thereafter.
A formal autopsy and investigation are ongoing, with the Jefferson County Coroner’s office stating that Kenneth’s body showed no signs of foul play or trauma at the time of his death, according to Al.com.
James alleges, based on information she received from incarcerated individuals at the prison, that her son was poisoned with fentanyl-laced drugs by other inmates. Kenneth was also suffering from head trauma and headaches due to the injuries he received from being attacked by the group of inmates the previous November, which James said could have also contributed to his death.
“One of the boys called me and said, ‘well, they poisoned your son,'” James said.
Easily accessible and often laced narcotics are commonplace in Alabama prisons. According to the ongoing lawsuit from the U.S Department of Justice, the result of this uncontrollable stream of contraband flowing into prisons is an increase in overdose deaths, with those deaths due to narcotics sometimes labeled as death by “natural causes” in reports.
Last week, another incarcerated man at Donaldson Correctional facility, Maxamillion Ward, 36, died after receiving treatment for a possible drug overdose. A second incarcerated man, Matthew Mork, 33, died the health care ward at Donaldson with a “do not resuscitate” order preventing staff from performing life-saving measures after he was found unresponsive.
Including Kenneth, at-least four incarcerated men have died in Donaldson since June.
James remembers Kenneth as a happy person capable of finding humor in any situation, no matter how bleak.
“He was saying how rats and roaches were running all over the place, and then we were talking, and he was laughing like ‘Mom, this is so bad,” James said, describing how she was somewhat angry at her son laughing at the conditions he lived under in Donaldson. “He’s like, ‘No, I try just to stay happy, and if I laugh, it helps my soul not feel the pain.’.”
Kenneth is survived by a daughter and a son. He was 36.