State Politics

Judge rules NC prisons wrongly fired nurse after inmate death

The state prison system wrongly fired a nurse supervisor following last year’s death of an inmate from dehydration and neglect, an administrative law judge ruled Friday.

Nursing Supervisor Jacqueline Clark was fired in April following the death of Michael Anthony Kerr, a retired Army sergeant who died at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville after spending five days handcuffed in solitary confinement. A federal grand jury is investigating Kerr’s death, as is the State Bureau of Investigation.

Prison officials cited “unacceptable personal conduct and grossly inefficient job performance” in firing Clark, but Administrative Law Judge Angus Elkins II ruled that prison officials failed to prove their case.

In fact, Elkins noted, Clark tried to fix a nursing shortage at the prison, but she received no help from her supervisors, who didn’t even visit the prison as required.

“The death of inmate Michael Kerr is tragic in every sense of the word,” Elkins wrote. Evidence included “a DVD showing a very lethargic and unresponsive Kerr lying on the bunk in his prison cell....Custody staff enter his cell wearing masks and must use bolt cutters to remove the feces caked handcuffs that he is wearing before physically placing him in a wheelchair.’

Despite such evidence, Elkins said he had to focus on whether Clark did anything wrong to deserve being fired.

The answer was clearly no, Elkins ruled.

In the months before Kerr’s death, Clark was promoted to the chief nurse supervisor at Alexander, an administrative position. She received job evaluations of excellent, but she faced a nursing shortage.

The vacancies included the two nursing supervisors reporting directly to Clark. She interviewed and forwarded candidates to her superiors for approval, yet no one was hired under Clark’s watch.

Clark’s supervisors never visited Alexander in the six months prior to Kerr’s death; the nursing director for the prison system testified that it was “a failure for them not to visit every month.”

The only error the state could prove was a clerical error involving a bland and unpopular food administered in solitary confinement known as Nutraloaf. Sixteen days before Kerr died, Clark approved feeding him Nutraloaf. Clark ordered a nurse to take Kerr’s vital signs before giving the loaf. The nurse did not, and Clark failed to note in the medical records the loaf and the failure to document vital signs.

“The Nutraloaf wouldn’t have been an issue except they were looking for a an excuse to fire her,” said Michael C. Byrne, Clark’s attorney. “There is no evidence Jacqueline Clark did anything wrong.”

Elkins ordered Clark be given her job back along with attorney fees and back pay. Prison officials declined comment on the ruling and said they have not decided whether to appeal.

Neff: 919-829-4516

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer