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Man Died of Neglect, Inmates Say

They told a state senator they alerted staff that he was starving in his cell, but no action was taken.

March 15, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — For two months, guards and medical staff at a state prison in Corcoran failed to provide meals or emergency care to an elderly inmate dying of malnutrition, according to inmate accounts given to a state senator.

In the days before 72-year-old Khem Singh starved to death at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility last month, fellow inmates said, they alerted correctional officers to his grave condition and filed official complaints about his mistreatment.

But no medical help was provided, even as it became clear to inmates that Singh, a Sikh priest from India who spoke no English and was crippled, had become emaciated and was intent on killing himself.

One inmate wrote a letter to state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) pleading that she intervene, but it arrived a few days after Singh's death Feb. 16. The inmate alleged that a guard had brutalized Singh in December, and that Singh was so afraid of a second assault that he hadn't left his cell for meals or medical appointments for nearly 60 days.

The letter obtained by The Times describes a frail and wheelchair-bound Singh -- whose 2001 conviction for sexual molestation in Stanislaus County brought him great shame in the Sikh community -- committing slow suicide. His weight had dropped from 110 pounds to 80.

Prison officials said Friday that they would talk to the inmates and review their letters and complaints as part of a growing investigation into Singh's death. The case coincides with increased scrutiny of California's vast prison system, which is riddled with accusations of brutality, coverups, fraud and poor medical care.

At Corcoran, Singh's condition took a turn for the worse early this year. Some correctional officers went to the prison's medical staff to express their own concerns, according to Romero, but logbooks show that no medical technician, nurse or doctor followed up and treated him in his cell.

"Mr. Singh has not left his cell to go to eat -- not once," the inmate wrote to Romero in a Feb. 11 letter. "They do not bring him any food. None. I smuggle bread back.... Mr. Singh is gentle, polite. I am ashamed it took me so long to speak out."

The guard who supervised the cellblock -- the same one suspected of having assaulted Singh -- is alleged to have told another inmate not to bother speaking out on behalf of the starving inmate. "Forget it; he's going to die," the inmate quoted the guard as telling him, according to Romero.

A few days later, after collapsing in his cell, Singh died of lung and heart failure caused by starvation.

"He was committing suicide right in front of them and they did nothing," said Romero, chairwoman of the corrections oversight committee, who visited the prison Tuesday to review medical and custody logbooks and to interview the letter-writer and four other inmates who shared a cellblock with Singh.

Romero provided their accounts to The Times on the condition that the inmates' names be kept confidential for fear of staff retaliation.

"As I left the prison, I kept asking myself, 'How could this have happened?' Whether it was intentional or sheer neglect, how could they let a man die right in front of their faces?" Romero said. Romero and others questioned why officers from the Corrections Department's Investigative Services Unit still had not interviewed the five inmates. After a prison hands over an incident report, investigators said, they are supposed to move quickly to gather statements from staff and inmates. This is done to make sure recollections are fresh and untainted.

"I can't imagine any excuse for not interviewing officers and inmates right away," said one longtime corrections investigator in Sacramento. "That should have been done weeks ago."

Martin Hoshino, head of the Investigative Services Unit, acknowledged the delay but said his investigators were now moving quickly to interview the inmates and others.

"The original shape of this case was medical in nature, but recent information and developments suggest that it may be more serious than that," he said. "We're now moving very quickly to collect all the pertinent information."

Patrick Hart, chief deputy prosecutor for Kings County, said his office would pursue any criminal allegations growing out of the corrections probe. "If their investigation uncovers criminal neglect or other criminal conduct, we won't hesitate to get involved," he said.

In the days after Singh's death, corrections officials in Sacramento said he had been depressed since arriving at the prison in late 2001, protesting his child molestation conviction and refusing to eat a diet that didn't conform to his vegetarian practices. The official account was that he died after a series of "on and off again" hunger strikes.

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