James Gill: Jail stay proves fatal for mother

Nimali Henry died in jail because she was too insistent on seeing her 4-month-old daughter.

St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s deputies found her body on the floor of her cell last month. She’d been there for two weeks, her pressing medical needs apparently ignored. She was 19. Hers is a story to make the blood boil.

No sane justice system would have locked her up in the first place. She was arrested after turning up at a house where her baby and the baby’s father, Nicholas Conners, — he and Henry were no longer an item — were visiting another young woman. Evidently Henry, not being welcome to pay a maternal visit, tried to barge her way in and the two women engaged in a shoving match. Conners separated them and Henry left.

Maybe she was out of line, but cops have considerable discretion and are not obliged to treat a distraught parent like a hardened criminal. They chose to take Henry in and book her with disturbing the peace, simple battery and unauthorized entry. Henry is black and, although it is impossible to say that a white girl would have gotten a better break, the possibility cannot be entirely discounted.

Bond was set at $25,000, which for most adult citizens might not be difficult to make. But for a single mother not long out of high school, and with no wealthy relatives in the background, this was tantamount to the “excessive bail” the Bill of Rights forbids.

Sheriff James Pohlmann doesn’t see it that way. “The charge of unauthorized entry of an inhabited building is a felony,” he said, “I don’t know if (the bond) was way out of the ordinary.” But this was not a case of unauthorized entry with nefarious intent, and the circumstances clearly did not warrant such a severe response. Regardless, Henry had no chance of being released pending trial, and Lord knows how long that would have taken.

She surely would have done more jail time awaiting trial than she could have gotten for a domestic dispute that involved no injury. Indeed, she already had when she died. It would have taken a pretty mean judge to impose a custodial sentence at all.

We’ll never know what would have happened had Henry been convicted, or, indeed, whether she would have been convicted, but we do need to know why she died. An autopsy has been conducted, but the results have not been released. Pohlmann says toxicology tests are pending, but the feds have launched an investigation so his is on hold.

Henry had recently been diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, which causes blood clots that can lead to brain damage, stroke or death. Her family members say that, despite their repeated pleas, she was denied her medication in jail.

Pohlmann does not deny it, but claims it is just too much to expect that inmates with potentially fatal disorders will always get the treatment they need in the slammer. “Depending on if the medication is prescribed, it’s a whole process to figure all that out,” he said. “You can’t just assume that everybody who shows up and says, ‘This is somebody’s medication,’ they just arbitrarily go up there, and give them that medication.”

Jeez, sheriff, if you just arbitrarily go up there and deny them that medication, sooner or later some inmate is going to die on your watch. Sure, “it’s a whole process to figure all that out,” but if you can’t manage it in two weeks, you are not fit to run a jail.

We cannot say for sure that Henry would be alive today had she been given her pills, but it is apparent that medical care at the St. Bernard Parish jail falls short of the standards to which inmates are entitled.

Suspects should be quizzed about their medical needs on admission to the jail, but evidently nobody could be persuaded to take account of Henry’s. Medical staff must have been either incompetent or derelict, and Pohlmann will presumably recognize that he must introduce reforms because it was a cruel and stupid system that condemned this kid to die in jail.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.