Updated: Jun 22, 2021
by Kristin Ervin
Content warning for state brutality and suicide.
This spring, Tallahassee commemorated the one-year anniversaries of the police murders of Mychael Johnson, Wilbon Woodard and Tony McDade. The community was able to honor their lives, but the deaths of two additional black men in police custody in 2020 went largely unnoticed. Forty-three year old Little Daniel Owens and sixty-six year old Melvin Richardson died inside the Leon County jail in November 2020. The Leon County Sheriff’s Office posted bare bones announcements of their deaths on social media, and then no additional information was released.
Public records requests about the two deaths provide a disturbing view of the treatment and conditions inside the jail. Melvin Richardson died three days after being returned to the jail from the hospital where he was treated for septic shock and pneumonia. The report from the last day of Melvin’s life describes his cell as having food, trash and feces scattered around the floor, bunk and toilet, and Melvin lying under his bunk grunting and waving his arms. Both were reported as being “normal” and jail staff did not know if he was eating or taking his medications. Despite the appalling conditions of Melvin’s confinement, the internal investigation determined his death was a result of natural causes and “failure to thrive.”
Public records requests showed that just weeks before Melvin died, another man, Little Daniel Owens, hung himself with a bed sheet in one of the jail’s isolation cells. He was awaiting trial for the murder of an unnamed woman he believed was possessed by demons. Court records show that he had been baker acted and incarcerated for violent crimes several times in Leon County over the past two decades. We may never know the full extent of the trauma Little Daniel Owens experienced in his life, but the brutality of both his life and his death are yet another reminder that our current criminal legal system is not only inhumane, it’s also failing to keep us safe.
Both Little Daniel Owens and Melvin Richardson desperately needed mental health care and support services, but our local government responded only with policing, criminalization, isolation, and severe medical neglect. We cannot keep relying on police and prisons as our primary tools to respond to human suffering. People who are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, poverty and houselessness need community support, not criminalization and punishment. We cannot solve social problems by disappearing community members behind detention center walls.
The truth is that throwing someone in jail, cutting them off from their family and support systems, keeping them in dehumanizing and inhumane conditions, exploiting their labor, and then kicking them out the side door into the same struggle as before isn’t helping anyone. Especially when you consider that now they have a 'convict' label that makes it even harder for them to get quality jobs and housing, or qualify for public assistance. Poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are some of the key drivers of crime, but our current system is not addressing those, it’s reinforcing them. If we want to address crime, not only do we need to focus on community support like access to mental health care, affordable housing, and education, we also need to stop the criminalization that disproportionately harms communities of color. We start by decriminalizing low level offenses and using a large part of the funds we dedicate to policing and incarceration and investing it in the most impacted communities.
In the meantime, we need transparency and accountability from the Leon County Sheriff’s office for its role in the deaths of two of our community members. We need to know how many have died in the jail prior to 2020, and what LCSO is doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We need to end our contract with Corizon, a private, for-profit health care contractor that has been sued for medical malpractice in multiple states including Florida. We need to know how many people are being kept in long-term isolation. We need to stop making it harder and more expensive for incarcerated people to stay connected with family and loved ones. We need to stop exploiting their labor and providing low quality food and health care. We need to quit pretending these things are making our community stronger, and ask ourselves what does.