After their son died in a Louisiana jail, a family struggles for answers

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Family spokesperson Monica Fabre and relative Nadean Bailey hold a blanket printed with photos of Jerome Stevenson. Stevenson was in the custody of a Marksville, Louisiana, jail when he died following a violent incident.

Family spokesperson Monica Fabre and relative Nadean Bailey hold a blanket printed with photos of Jerome Stevenson. Stevenson was in the custody of a Marksville, Louisiana, jail when he died following a violent incident.

Kat Stromquist, Gulf States Newsroom

When Jerome Stevenson was alive, he loved working out and his family.

He was the kind of person who would jump to mow a lawn for a family member without being asked, Nadean Bailey said, and his zeal for life was matched by his appetite. Once, he got in trouble with his father for polishing off half a Magnalite pot of dirty rice before his dad could have any.

Bailey came into Stevenson’s life when she started dating his father — when Stevenson was around 11 or 12 years old. He came to call Bailey his “bonus mom.” Sometimes he would cuddle up on the couch with her and his brother, as she fended off accusations of spoiling the kids.

Mostly, she remembers Stevenson as joyful.

“I don’t know where he got the happiness from, but he was happy, all the time,” she said.

In September, Stevenson was booked into jail In Marksville, Louisiana. According to the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office online booking reports, he was being held on charges including purse snatching and simple battery.

On Nov. 4, as Bailey and Stevenson’s father watched the LSU-Alabama football game, Stevenson’s father’s phone rang. The call — from another relative who’d received a call from someone else being held in the jail — began a frantic evening. Stevenson had been beaten and hospitalized, then airlifted to a second hospital.

The 26-year-old never spoke to Bailey again.

“’Cause by the time we got to him, he was already dead. On life support — just a lifeless body laying in the bed,” she said.

Months later, the exact sequence of events that led to Stevenson’s death hasn’t been made public. What a Dec. 29 sheriff’s news release describes as an “offender-on-offender crime of violence” led to the February announcement of the arrest of another incarcerated person — and two deputies.

Avoyelles Parish Sheriff David Dauzat didn’t return an interview request made through an intermediary, but in written responses to questions, a sheriff’s deputy affirmed that the investigation is ongoing.

“There were two inmates in a cell. The two inmates were identified as Jerome Stevenson and [another incarcerated person],” the deputy wrote in a statement. “At no time did any APSO employee strike or commit a battery on Jerome Stevenson.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if charging decisions had been made in the case. An Avoyelles Parish district attorney’s office representative said they would need a defendant’s birthdate to provide that information over the phone.

A lack of transparency, information

The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office jail complex in Marksville, Louisiana.
The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office jail complex in Marksville, Louisiana. (Kat Stromquist/Gulf States Newsroom)

As the case unspools, it shows the complications and confusion that families face when someone is hurt or dies in prison or jail. Experts and advocates say loved ones are often left with anguished questions when things go terribly wrong.

These concerns are magnified in the Gulf South, where consistently high incarceration rates mean more people have a family member or friend in custody — and who are left to pick through the wreckage after a loss.

“Families typically can’t find out why their loved one died, or what’s happening in the investigation, or they may not even be notified about it,” said Michele Deitch, director of UT Austin’s Prison and Jail Innovation Lab.

Those questions can extend even to the most basic inquiry of how many people die in prisons or jails. The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 requires states to submit quarterly reports on deaths, but Deitch says the mandate isn’t enforced, and the government has identified significant undercounts.

For correctional officers, fears about liability or a sense that people who work outside the system just won’t understand feed into a culture of secrecy, Deitch said.

“Prisons and jails kind of circle the wagons when bad things happen and they thrive on a lack of transparency and a lack of information,” she said.

Connie Lewis, from the Louisiana-based group A Mother’s Voice — which supports the families of incarcerated people — said families of incarcerated loved ones tell her there is “always a lot of” death in jails and prisons, as well as abuse, overdoses and unpleasant conditions like a lack of running water.

She described information filtering out through Facebook, phone calls from incarcerated family members and other sources.

At the same time, “nobody knows what’s going on,” she said. “Nobody’s taking responsibility.”

Improved visitation policies, she said, could help loved ones “keep a constant watchdog” on what is happening behind facility walls.

New Alabama law is reason for optimism

Gulf South families’ quest for answers when an incarcerated loved one is hurt or killed recently came to a head in Alabama.

In December, family members convened before that state legislature’s joint prison oversight committee to give accounts of deaths, violence and a trickle of information from the overcrowded and troubled Alabama prison system.

In wrenching testimony, family members described desperately calling prisons “every hour” after word of an incident, or reminded lawmakers that people in prison are still brothers, fathers, uncles and neighbors to those left behind.

We got a call four days after my nephew was beaten to death that he’s in the hospital. He was life-flighted out of Ventress [Correctional Facility],” Kevin Hyatt told committee members, his voice choked with feeling. “And when we get to the hospital, he’s hooked up to machines.”

Eddie Burkhalter, a researcher for Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said it’s common for people to first find out that something has happened to their loved one from another incarcerated person.

Information gaps are just one of many problems in that state’s prisons, which are in “constant crisis,” plagued by low staffing and other issues, he explained.

The meeting helped prompt legislation passed in the Alabama session that wrapped up earlier this month. It will provide several changes, including enabling the prison system to appoint more than a dozen dedicated staffers to provide information to family members.

Burkhalter said it’s a reason for optimism.

“I’m hopeful that this legislation is going to make a difference,” he said. “I know that these lawmakers are tired of being contacted constantly and hearing that [the Alabama Department of Corrections] is not giving any information.”

‘Trapped in the judicial system’

Nadean Bailey, Jerome Stevenson's relative, says Stevenson's young son will miss "a lot of firsts" with his father.
Nadean Bailey, Jerome Stevenson’s relative, says Stevenson’s young son will miss “a lot of firsts” with his father. (Kat Stromquist/Gulf States Newsroom)

Back in Louisiana, Jerome Stevenson’s family hired prominent civil rights lawyer Ben Crump to dig into the case. They’ve hosted press conferences and called for justice for Stevenson’s death.

“If we learned anything from George Floyd’s case, it tells us when a citizen is in your custody, they’re also in your care,” Crump said at one of those events.

Monica Fabre, a family friend and NAACP New Roads branch president who has served as the family’s spokesperson, said Stevenson’s story embodies the struggles of Black men caught up in correctional systems.

They get trapped in the judicial system because they commit a crime and because of poverty and situations beyond their control, they cannot bond out [of jail],” she said. “That was Jerome’s situation. He was just not able to bond himself out and ended up being murdered while in police custody.”

Monica Fabre, Jerome Stevenson's family spokesperson, wears a T-shirt remembering Stevenson.
Monica Fabre, Jerome Stevenson’s family spokesperson, wears a T-shirt remembering Stevenson. (Kat Stromquist/Gulf States Newsroom)

For Stevenson’s family, questions remain, and there are puzzling wrinkles in the family’s search for better understanding.

Bailey and Fabre said the family has received little communication from the sheriff’s office, but the APSO said they have made efforts to do so. In a written statement, the Avoyelles Parish sheriff said a different family member declined a meeting to discuss the incident.

The office sent a condolence card “expressing our sympathy,” he wrote.

A case file in progress was turned over to the Avoyelles Parish district attorney’s office on May 8, a written statement from a sheriff’s deputy said.

A document produced through a public records request details a call for an ambulance, with a booking officer saying an inmate was “knocked out” and “bleeding from his head, mouth, and eyes.”

As Bailey talked about Stevenson’s death, silent tears rolled down her face. Light glittered off rhinestones on her fingernails as she wiped her wet cheeks with a folded Kleenex, the tissue squeaking slightly against her skin.

“Why?” she asks. “He didn’t have to die. That’s it. They didn’t have to kill him. He was somebody[‘s] son.”

Stevenson’s son, who just had his seventh birthday, hasn’t had many questions yet, she said. She anticipates he’ll have more to say when he gets older, and his dad misses his first football game, his baptism — “a lot of firsts,” Bailey said.

The little boy cherishes a blanket printed with photos of his dad. And Bailey says when he sits down at the table for dinner, he asks for his father.

“His prayer is: God is great, God is good, I want my daddy,” she said. “Every day.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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