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Families seek answers in deaths of inmates

Anna Lamb
Families seek answers in deaths of inmates
Demonstrators outside the South Bay House of Correction. There have been four deaths in Suffolk County jails since July. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

On Friday night, a small crowd gathered outside the Suffolk County House of Corrections to demand answers in the deaths of four inmates since July.

The group, comprised of family members of the deceased, as well as community leaders and activists, chanted and shared speeches while demanding an independent investigation into the deaths of Rashonn Wilson, Ayesha Johnson, Edward “Jay” Isberg and Carl “Chuck” Rabouin, who all died in recent months –– the latest, Rabouin, on Sept. 18. The families of all four say they have not yet received explanation regarding the cause of death of their loved ones.

Several problems were raised Friday evening by activists on the outside, many of whom have witnessed mistreatment and a lack of appropriate resources while being incarcerated themselves.

In the background of the rally, those inside the jail could be heard banging on the glass in solidarity.

Jasmine Borges of the Massachusetts Bail Fund, a formerly incarcerated person herself, spoke about the lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as lack of proper medical attention, when she was locked up.

“They’re incapable of taking care of our needs,” she said. “To this system and to the people who work within it and fund it, we do not matter.”

At least two of the people being represented at the rally struggled with substance abuse at the time of their deaths –– Ayesha Johnson was in South Bay awaiting placement into a treatment program, while Jay Isberg had been arrested in the midst of a relapse.

Elijaih Perry, Ayesha’s cousin, reflected on the relationship with Johnson that got cut short.

“Now she has a brother who doesn’t have answers, who can’t sleep; her sister, cousins, aunts, uncles [and] her two children who, lord knows how they’re feeling inside,” he said. “Like, why should they have to be here with no answers about what happened to their mother?”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins says all four deaths are under investigation and told the Banner he could not comment on the specifics of the cases. He noted that three of the four people who died were admitted to the infirmary directly after they came to the facility.

“They were in for less than 48 hours before they died,” he said. “We are receiving people who have some serious medical issues — mental health, substance abuse.”

Friday’s rally was one of many actions carried out in recent weeks as more time passes without answers.

Much of the group at the center of the cry for accountability are also those demanding greater criminal justice reform to prevent incarceration in the first place.

Stacey Borden, of New Beginnings Reentry Services and Families for Justice as Healing, has made headlines for her dedication to community-driven rehabilitation as well as her outspoken opposition to a proposed new prison in Norfolk. She spoke Friday about the punitive nature of incarceration, and its failings to those most vulnerable.

Borden spoke not only to dealing with addiction but also rampant sexual violence that occurs both in and out of prisons and jails. She herself was a victim prior to her incarceration.

“Imagine a woman like me, like some of you, that has endured a rape. And then you have to be behind the will of a man with a key locking us in a cage. And if you don’t cooperate, you’re strapped to a chair because you don’t know how to articulate your emotions,” she said. Towards the end of her speech she added, “We need healing.”

Romilda Pereira, a long-time activist and the person responsible for putting the rally together, spoke on the need to eliminate cash bail and abolish the law that allows those waiting for treatment to be held in jail.

“All these people could have been in the community where they might have accessed the care and support they needed, instead of being behind a wall in a system of punishment tainted by racism,” she said.

But among the suggestions of solutions and the myriad problems with the carceral system, one main question posed by Pereira colored all the stories and calls for answers.

“I can’t help but to think, what’s really going on behind those doors?” she said.

The four families are still awaiting official toxicology reports to shed light on their loved ones’ causes of death.

Tompkins said many of those who are admitted to the Nashua Street and South Bay facilities do not belong in jail, but are sent their by the courts because there is nowhere else for them to go. He says the Legislature should increase funding for services for people who are in crisis.

“Please spend more money on substance abuse treatment and mental health services,” he said. “Stop sending people to jail. This is not where they should be.”

inmate deaths, Steve Tompkins, Suffolk County House of Correction