Terminal Incarceration

The short, sad lives of some detainees facing relatively minor charges end in jail. Here are three such cases.

As she laid her head on her big sister's chest and listened to the heartbeats slow, Harolyn Frazier thought of opportunities lost. In the wake of a seizure, 38-year-old Lola Davis was brain dead, and Frazier had given hospital staff permission to turn off life support. A guard sat on a bench nearby. Outside the narrow window, evening light gave in to darkness.

Frazier sobbed quietly, thinking of the baby girl Davis had given birth to six months earlier. She thought of life without her sister, the only close family she had left. She thought about how their lives had taken such separate paths — Frazier had become an ordained minister and successful office manager, while her sister had been condemned to draw her last breath in a place where freedom is a hallucination. Then the heartbeats stopped.

Within minutes the guard had "secured the scene." As Frazier consoled two of Davis's daughters outside, a police officer arrived, followed by a homicide detective who dutifully recorded the details. "Deceased was an inmate at TGK [Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center] on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia," the detective wrote. "She suffered from advanced breast cancer and was on a respirator. On January 7, 2005, she was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced [dead] in the emergency room. According to family, she was single and had seven children."

Lola Davis (left), in her twenties, poses at a Liberty City park; Harolyn Davis flips through old photos of her big sister; a teenage Lola relaxes on her grandmother's porch in Opa-locka; Lola as a pigtailed eight-year-old
Jacqueline Carini
Lola Davis (left), in her twenties, poses at a Liberty City park; Harolyn Davis flips through old photos of her big sister; a teenage Lola relaxes on her grandmother's porch in Opa-locka; Lola as a pigtailed eight-year-old
Lola Davis, in her twenties, poses at a Liberty City park
Lola Davis, in her twenties, poses at a Liberty City park

Davis's was the first "in-custody death" of the year and one of 33 in Miami-Dade's jail system during the past two years. Among the 50 largest jail systems, Miami-Dade ranks eighth in deaths per capita, its rate of death almost 40 percent higher than the norm, according to Bureau of Justice statistics for 2002, the most recent year for which data is available. The average age of those who die while locked up here is 42, a year shy of the life expectancy in Haiti.

Some of the deaths — usually beatings or suicides — make the evening newscast. Most recently, in February, the corrections department released information about a mentally ill inmate who had died of hypothermia the previous month. The man's body temperature had been twenty degrees below normal when he was found unresponsive on his cell's concrete floor.

But most inmate deaths — brought on by years of illness, drug and alcohol abuse, or some combination of the three — go largely unnoticed. Sometimes prisoners find their deathbeds on jail cell cots, but more often they spend their last moments in a hospital clinic under a guard's watch.

Through its contractor, Public Health Trust, an independent healthcare provider created by the board of county commissioners, corrections provides regular medication to 1750 of the county's 7000 inmates, runs seven jail-based clinics, and operates one ward at Jackson Memorial. In addition to more basic treatments, Ward D, as it's called, handles the business of death for most terminally ill prisoners, who, like all county inmates, are awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year. This year corrections has budgeted $19.4 million for healthcare, with more than twenty percent, or $4.1 million, going to Ward D.

Years before fate wheeled her down the linoleum hallways of Jackson, Lola Davis roamed the streets of Overtown and then Opa-locka, where she grew up a tomboy with pigtail braids. Her father had been a faint memory — he died in combat in Vietnam when Davis was two. Her mother, on the other hand, had been a powerful presence, a well-known community figure who helped organize political campaigns for the likes of former Opa-locka Mayor Willie Logan and former Vice Mayor Helen Miller. "We lived a life in city commission chambers," Frazier says.

The two girls idolized their mother and were devastated when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. One day, as they cooked a meal of chicken and pudding in anticipation of her return from yet another hospital treatment, Davis, then sixteen, and Frazier, then twelve, received the news: Their mother had died.

Davis was inconsolable. She questioned what kind of God would allow her mother to die at 32. Already rebellious and moody, she began staying out later and later, getting into trouble, starting fights. "Lola went wayward after my mom passed," Frazier says. While Frazier went to live with family friend Evelyn Brown in Liberty City, Davis moved in with her grandmother in Overtown because Brown couldn't handle her. "I said Lola is out of hand; I can't do nothing with Lola," Brown recalls. "I don't know what happened; she just got to where she wanted to be in the streets with her friends."

By the time she was twenty, Davis was doing cocaine and hopping from boyfriend to boyfriend, getting pregnant and getting into trouble. She was arrested for shoplifting purses and groceries, selling nickel bags, stealing license plates, and, once, robbing a man of five dollars at knifepoint. Sometimes, when she had nowhere else to go, she would stay with Frazier, now raising a child in Overtown. Davis would take her sister's clothes. She would take her money. She would take her car without telling her. Through it all, Frazier forgave Davis, and the sisters remained close despite their disparate lives. "We didn't have to speak every day, but we had that sister bond, that sister love," Frazier says.

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