From Nov. 1, 2014, through Jan. 15, 2017, the Escambia County had seven deaths in its county jail. None in the media recognized the issue until Inweekly began its investigation.
Nationally, around 80 percent of all local jails had no deaths in a year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Less than seven percent had two or more deaths. If a death happened in a city or county jail in Florida, there was a one-in-ten chance it would happen in Escambia County.
We reported those statistics and the circumstances regarding the deaths of Rodney Berry and Samuel Devon Averheart (Inweekly, “Jail Deaths Require Scrutiny,”12/3/15). The article became the catalyst for substantial changes in jail operations, especially in its infirmary.
The day after the article was published, County Administrator Jack Brown announced Director of Corrections Michael Tidwell would be relieved of his duties and replaced by Assistant County Administrator Chip Simmons. Four of the jail deaths had happened after Tidwell was hired to oversee community corrections, the county jail, and the road prison.
Unfortunately, not all of the operational changes were in place at the start of 2016. Sixty-six-year-old Alfred Wesley, brother of Rev. Lonnie Wesley, III, was found unresponsive in his cell after having been taken to a local hospital on Jan. 15. Alfred’s death raised the public’s consciousness to a higher level.
“I’m beating myself up a little in an embarrassing way because it took the death of my oldest brother to really wake me up to some of the problems that we’re having in our county jail,” the pastor of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church told Inweekly last year.
“When our brother was found dead in the cell on Jan. 15, that was the catalyst for me,” he said. “That was a personal wake-up call.”
Rev. Wesley met with the families whose loved ones perished in the county jail. On Feb. 20, he led a peaceful rally in front of the facility to call attention to the need for better health care for those incarcerated in the county jail.
“We’re truly in this together. Now when I’m using the word ‘We,’ I mean all of us here in Escambia County,” he said. “The need is there to shine as much light on this problem as possible, not to point fingers.”
On the anniversary of his brother’s death, Pastor Wesley called. He said, “Rick, my brother’s death was the last one in the jail since our rally. Maybe we had an impact.”
We did. Never underestimate the power of shining light on a problem.