Indidental Death in a Jail Cell

NOTE: The link in this story may not be work-safe, as it will take you to the website for NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In October, 2004, a 27-year-old man named Jonathan Magbie died in a Washington, D.C. jail while serving a ten day sentence for marijuana possession. From NORML’s site:

Magbie was sentenced to spend ten days in jail on September 20, 2004 after pleading guilty to one charge of marijuana possession. Though prosecutors had recommended probation, the judge in the case ordered Magbie to serve jail time – noting that the defendant had told pre-sentence investigators that he would continue using marijuana because it made him feel better.

No one could reasonable argue that death is an appropriate sentence for possessing marijuana for personal use. Whether or not the ten-day sentence itself was appropriate is another argument altogether.

There’s another, entirely different, message to take away from this ridiculous, tragic story. If you have any reason to believe that your medical needs may be compromised in a bureaucratic setting — due to stupidity, ignorance, cupidity, insensitivity, callousness or for any other reason — find an advocate who is able to command the attention of the bureaucrats or administrators in question, and who is able to do so immediately.

There’s no way of knowing exactly what Jonathan Magbie was thinking as he went off to jail. I can’t tell if he was articulate or not, or if he understood the seriousness of his situation. It’s probably reasonable to assume that he had no idea that he had only ten more days to live when he went to serve what may have seemed, in the larger scheme of things, a fairly insignificant term for doing something he had every intention of continuing to do once freed. Perhaps he felt that going to jail was just a cost of using marijuana.

If so, he was wrong. In their zeal to treat Magbie like everyone else, his jailers (and the court system) killed him. For whatever reason, Magbie was unable to demand or acquire the medical assistance that would have kept him alive while he served his sentence. A advocate might have seen this picture a bit more clearly than Magbie may have. An advocate may have had the ability to demand that Magbie’s medical needs be evaluated and that an adequate plan for meeting them was in place before he began serving his sentence.

Yes, the system should have worked better. Yes, Magbie’s medical needs should have been evaluated and considered before he ever rolled through the jailhouse doors. Yes, he should not have needed another voice. But Magbie is dead because none of these things happened.

It’s not politically correct to suggest that Magbie, or any other person with quadriplegia or another complex medical situation, might need someone else to speak for him. But ‘politically correct’ is not the point when life or death is an issue. ‘Reality’ is the point.

If you are vulnerable, if your fate is tied to others who may not understand the parameters of your existence, others who may not hear you simply because you are ‘disabled’, find yourself the loudest, most competent spokesperson you can. Make sure that someone with perceived power can speak for you, because, in real life, the disenfranchised, the ‘different’, the marginalized, are often ignored.

Find that advocate if you’re going into jail, into a rehab hospital, into assisted living, or a nursing home. Treasure that person, and call upon him or her if there’s even a small chance that your situation is not being addressed. Do it first, and do it fast. You may not have time to sort it all out later.