A horrific case

“Little Cliff” Warfield, 27, died in KSP’s custody on Aug. 12, 2008. He developed a bowel obstruction at the beginning of August. After days of vomiting, Warfield was moved from KSP’s infirmary to solitary confinement. When the attending physician would not order treatment, the nurses complained to the warden, who ordered Warfield back to the infirmary, where it was noted that he was vomiting feces. Almost 10 days before his death, an officer had noted Warfield “was virtually begging, he was begging for a nurse, for medical attention” but was told by a nurse that she would not help Warfield “because the doctor told her she couldn’t.” The hospital’s attempts to operate were too late. Warfield’s entire small intestine had rotted. He was stitched up and made as comfortable as possible.

No media outlet covered Warfield’s death. In the United States, death in captivity due to gross neglect is unremarkable. Warfield’s family filed suit alleging, among other things, that Warfield’s treating physicians ignored obvious signs of his condition. Although the case settled for an undisclosed amount, Warfield’s doctor was never disciplined. That doctor was Steve Hiland, the same physician responsible for James Embry at the time of his starvation death.

Belzley says: “Given that Dr. Hiland continued to be employed as the medical director at KSP after Clifford’s case was settled, the priority of the Kentucky Department of Corrections at the time appears to have been to put forward a united front in an effort to defeat the claims of Clifford’s estate (which they failed to do), instead of making changes to insure that the serious, obvious medical needs of inmates at KSP were met in the future. Mr. Embry’s death was the result.”

Belzley attributes the gross oversights in the U.S. prison system to a variety of factors. “We criminalized everything, imposed draconian sentences, and all the while cut the taxes that were needed to pay for our exploding prison populations. We’re considered barbarians by other western, industrialized nations for our elaborate prison-industrial complex. They don’t understand how people could even consider making a living — much less the profit made by private prison corporations — off warehousing human beings.  Neither can I.”

So the obvious question for a professional problem solver is: What can be done to fix things? Belzley’s view is disturbingly realistic. “I’m not sure we can ‘fix’ the system until we ‘fix’ ourselves, and I’m not sure we can ‘fix’ ourselves. All I know is that I have to fight the system that produces these types of horrible, tragic, inhuman outcomes. That’s where I find my humanity.  Whether I succeed in ‘fixing’ the system or not is beside the point. It would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Despite his grim forecast, Belzley is undaunted. “Showing people that despite their economic circumstances, despite their criminal record, sometimes the law does the right thing, the system works, and the underdog wins. That happens just enough to keep me in the game.”

Full disclosure: The author has worked on cases with Mr. Belzley and is not at all unbiased about his performance as a lawyer, a Kentuckian, and a human being.