The death of a D.C.-area man while in police custody in June sheds light on two important problems facing America: police brutality and the mass incarceration of the mentally ill.
By Sean Nevins
WASHINGTON — On June 17, 2014 Samuel Shields, a jovial and charismatic reggae musician from Jamaica, boarded a bus in Washington, D.C. on his way to Addison Road Metro Station, located just over the state border in Capitol Heights, Maryland. Later that evening he was pronounced dead at Southern Maryland Hospital after being briefly detained at Prince George’s County Detention Center.
Shields was arrested by Metro Transit Police for failing to pay the $2 bus fare for his trip to the subway station. Officers on the scene reportedly pepper sprayed Shields before taking him into custody. A spokeswoman for the jail told an NBC affiliate in Washington that Shields was being “disruptive” and had to be separated from the other inmates.
Authorities have stated that Shields was taken to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, after he became medically distressed in the jail.
According to video footage obtained by Shields’ lawyer, Billy L. Ponds, Shields became unresponsive after a severe beating by guards. Ponds explained that after guards asked Shields what his name was, he did not answer them. The guards then became infuriated and started beating him. Calls for a federal investigation into the case have not yet been successful.
A witness, who says she was at the jail at the time of the incident, recounted a similar story in June, telling the NBC affiliate that she saw Shields refusing to put on his orange jumpsuit and acting like he had “mental issues.” After six officers approached and handcuffed Shields, she said, “We can see them kicking, applying force with their fists with a club, we could see them just hitting him, and at that time he was screaming bloody murder.” When they realized that Shields had become unresponsive, she said the guards’ faces showed “pure panic.”
In fact, Shields had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a condition which may have contributed to him not cooperating with guards. (According to his wife, Regina Shields, he also suffered from congestive heart failure and sleep apnea.)
Jaye Lowe, Shields’ immigration attorney, said that regardless of Shields’ actions, “The beating into submission is inexcusable.”
“The chokeholds,” Lowe continued, referring to the similar case involving Eric Garner in New York City, “are inexcusable!”
Lowe told MintPress News that if Shields did become belligerent in the prison setting, she believes it was due to his mental illness.
She also recounted how the events leading up to Shields’ death played out that day, as it was explained to her: “He went on the bus because he didn’t have the money. So he jumps off the bus… passes the bus driver, and goes and sits down. The bus driver calls the police.”
The police came and arrested Shields. He was charged with “theft less than $100.00… obstructing and hindering… [and] resisting arrest.”
Lowe said that when staff at the county jail received his personal belongings, they looked through them and “saw a plethora of medications.”
She said that as far as Shields becoming unresponsive and not paying his bus ticket, the jailers should have recognized that he was experiencing some sort of psychotic episode.
She told MintPress, “For the life of me, I can’t understand if you ask somebody what their name is, and he’s confused, and he says, ‘I don’t know.’ You’re going to beat him up? Beat him in his head?”
“That’s what I understand happened,” she said.
“They should have recognized that this man was ill and in a psychotic state.” She added, “Not only that, [but] he had a serious serious heart condition.”
Ponds, who is representing the late Samuel Shields for his wife, Regina, recently obtained video footage of what happened in the lead-up to Shields’ death. The video was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
He said that the footage shows two or three jailers beating Mr. Shields continuously for 15 minutes. He said the guards looked like they were former football players, and he estimated that they each weighed about 275 pounds.
A Baltimore medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Shields declared that he had died of natural causes. Yet, as Ponds told MintPress, the beating that Shields endured would have likely prompted a heart attack for anyone suffering from health issues.
“It wasn’t like he died of natural causes,” Ponds said. “It was that the excessive force was the causation that caused him to die of a heart attack, and that’s clear.”
“It’s not like he was walking out of his cell and he just fell down,” Ponds continued. “They were beating him. He was screaming. You could hear the hits. You could see the large size security guards once they left the cell. They were dripping with sweat because they’d been beating him simply to try to get him into a uniform when they knew he was already suffering from medical issues, and that he had not received his medication for some psychological issues he had.”
Though it has not yet been released to the public, Ponds said the video is something the public should see.
“It’s absolutely egregious for any county employee, or state employee, or city employee to beat a person causing their death!” Ponds said.
America’s new asylums
However tragic Shields’ case may sound, it is not rare, according to Ponds. His law firm alone has received numerous calls regarding excessive force used by prison guards on inmates at Prince George’s County Detention Center.
Ponds plans to file a lawsuit regarding Shields’ case “no later than the end of February,” in which case the detention center will have to turn over documents related to excessive force used on prisoners.
Yet there’s a broader element that Shields’ case reflect: the mass incarceration of the mentally ill.
“Prisons and jails have become America’s ‘new asylums,’” according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with mental illness.
A survey conducted by the center in April revealed that, “The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold.”
The survey says that mentally ill individuals are vulnerable and often abused when they are incarcerated.
The survey examined that state of mentally ill people in prisons and jails, concluding that the mentally ill often languish behind bars longer because of overcrowding. It states that the mentally ill often display behaviors that are disturbing to other prisoners and staff; they are victimized; their psychiatric condition deteriorates because of a lack of treatment; they are often put in solitary confinement, which makes their mental condition worse; suicide occurs disproportionately among the mentally ill; their incarceration increases costs to the American taxpayer; and mentally ill people have a disproportionate rate of recidivism.
Despite these problems, the mentally ill are still 10 times more likely to be confined in jail than a health institution. This is a phenomenon that began in the 1960s through the process of deinstitutionalization, which removed severely mentally ill people from state institutions while simultaneously closing those institutions. This process has been called “one of the largest social experiments in American history” — and it’s one that has clearly failed individuals with mental illness.
The Treatment Advocacy Center states that innumerable problems arise from having the mentally ill confined in prisons rather than institutions with specialized mental health resources:
“Although [prison and jail officials] are neither equipped nor trained to do so, they are required to house hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill inmates. In many cases, they are unable to provide them with psychiatric medications. The use of other options, such as solitary confinement or restraining devices, is sometimes necessary and may produce a worsening of symptoms. Yet, when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the prison and jail officials are blamed. The present situation is unfair to both the inmates and the officials and is untenable.”
“He’s just a people’s person”
Shields is survived by his wife, Regina, two children, and two stepchildren.
One of Shields’ stepsons told MintPress that it was strange when Shields didn’t come home that evening, so he and his mother went looking for him. The 21-year-old also said that he and his stepfather often traveled together for fun. (He asked that his name not be used in this story.)
Commenting on his character, Shields’ stepson said, “He’s a really nice person. He’s nice to everyone, the type of person that will never get mad.”
“He loves music. He loves to write his own songs, sing people songs, [and] joke around. He loves to cook. He loves his family. He loved being around our family. He’s just a people’s person.”