Starvation death of Ky. prisoner underscores need to protect inmates’ rights—an area of law Greg Belzley is dedicated to practicing

Kentucky prison inmate

Kentucky prison inmate James Embry starved to death while in custody earlier this year.

On Jan. 13, 2014, James Embry, a profoundly mentally ill inmate housed in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, starved to death. This event was not treated as newsworthy, likely because the press simply didn’t know. Brett Barrouquere of the AP broke the story three months later when KSP fired Embry’s treating physician, Steve Hiland. The AP quoted Dr. Hiland’s explanation for Embry’s death as, “I never saw this guy, never met him.” For a short time, news consumers seemed interested.

In a sense, the discipline of prison medical professionals for inadequate care is perhaps more newsworthy than the death of their charges. One story is far more common than the other. But Embry’s gruesome death has, however briefly, shed light on a problem which is endemic in Kentucky’s correctional facilities.

The problem is, in part, one of numbers. By now, it seems redundant to recite statistics placing the U.S. far above any other nation in the world in terms of the sheer number of incarcerated citizens. And the percentage of the American population in lockup similarly outpaces the rest of civilization. The United States has almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, but only 5 percent of the world’s population. The privatization of prisons in some places has led to both a sharp decline in costs and a spike in prison deaths. Predictably, the staff-to-inmate ratio in most correctional facilities — particularly when we’re talking about medical staff — is woefully inadequate.

But the depth of the problem cannot be grasped by the recitation of statistics. A scant few horror stories accompanying these numbers see the light of day. Earlier this year, a homeless veteran made news when he “basically baked to death” in an overheated New York cell. In 2007, a Michigan inmate was chained to a concrete slab for days until he finally died of thirst. And while James Embry’s story was one of the few to make national news, it is certainly not the only case in which a Kentucky citizen has died while in custody.

Nonetheless, PBS’s “Frontline,” in an in-depth look at the state of incarceration in the commonwealth, says Kentucky is on the cutting edge of prison reform. It would seem that despite the occasional starvation death, there is at least some hope that Kentucky isn’t the worst in the nation when it comes to inmate conditions.

Still, Kentucky lawyers tend to think first and foremost about Kentucky problems. And the problem of Kentucky’s prison population is one to which attorney Greg Belzley has devoted the last decade of his career. The vast majority of Kentucky’s prisoners who make it to a lawyer at all eventually find their way to him.

Belzley, 58, doesn’t mince words. “I stupidly fell into the ‘working-for-a-big-law-firm-equals-success’ trap and spent too much of my first 30 years of practice working for big firms, rich people and corporate elites who couldn’t have cared less about the system of justice, conditions in America, or the needs of the people who really needed my help.” That all began to change in 1986, when he got his first inmates’ rights case. Now it’s almost all he does. 

Attorney Jeff Belzley outside the Kentucky State Penitentiary

Attorney Greg Belzley outside the Kentucky State Reformatory | Photo by Dan Canon

Unlike many veteran trial lawyers, Belzley has an infectious enthusiasm about his work. It’s next to impossible to find someone who knows more about inmates’ rights. But to be fair, that may be because almost no one practices in that area. An accumulating body of case law, backed by federal legislation, has essentially eliminated the rights of prisoners to even seek — let alone obtain — relief from the courts. Lawyers can spend countless hours on a case only to have it thrown out by a judge, rejected by an unsympathetic jury, or shot down by an appellate court.

Some prisoners try to pursue legal remedies on their own and often fail.

Assuming they develop the skill set to be able to draft legal documents in the first place, a typical inmate can’t afford filing fees, let alone the thousands of dollars in expert fees it often takes to get a case before a jury. But without access to lawyers like Belzley, an aggrieved prisoner has virtually no chance at a day in court even with the worst of injuries. And there aren’t many lawyers like Belzley.

Oftentimes, Belzley says, inmates “can’t find lawyers to take on local law enforcement in cases involving egregious violations of constitutional rights, even those resulting in death or severe, permanently disabling injury, and they give up before finding me.”

Even with an attorney, simply getting to a jury is no small feat. Many cases never make it that far. Belzley has put thousands of his own dollars into cases over the years, only to have the case tossed before trial. So why would someone go through all that heartache and risk representing those who many consider the “worst of the worst”?

“I came to believe strongly that I was vastly overcompensated for the work I did as a partner in big law firms here in Louisville when compared with its societal benefit. I was being paid a lot of money for work of very little real value, work that in many respects meant little more than changing entries in the accounting sheet of major corporations, insurance companies, and wealthy individuals. I quickly learned that the people who really needed my help were the people who couldn’t afford to pay me.

“I started getting letters from inmates, and calls from their families, complaining about their treatment behind bars, particularly with regard to their obviously serious medical needs. I got deeper and deeper into the work. I loved the people I represented. They thanked me for my efforts, and sent me Christmas cards long after my representation of their interests had terminated, something I never got in almost 30 years of representing ‘the suits.'”