Rotting away in jail
Everyone in the Kevin Young story has a story. Everybody's covered. But if everybody's covered, and if everybody has a story, then how could this have happened? Can a man -- any man, woman, human being -- literally rot in jail, almost until his limbs fall off, while he waits for years to be tried?
One thing must be said at the very beginning. It's Kevin Young's fault he was in jail. He says that much himself.
"I done this to myself," he mutters softly, barely audible over the thrum of the big floor-stand fan in his small room in Tri-City Hospital on Scyene Road in southern Dallas. "I have to live with what I done."
He doesn't talk about the crime in detail, but he certainly doesn't protest his innocence, and he says he told the prosecutor he would testify against his accomplices.
He's 22 years old now, handsome, muscular from the waist up. The withered lower half of his body is shrouded in bed sheets clutched with one hand. Four years ago he graduated from Lincoln High School. The high school is closed for the summer, and his records are stored there. The school district can confirm only that he graduated. It can't say what his grade-point average was until the school reopens, but his family says he earned straight A's. His basketball trophies fill a carefully dusted shelf in his grandmother's home on Exline in old South Dallas. The family says he was offered a full basketball scholarship to a college in Florida.
But he never made it off the streets of South Dallas. He visited the college in Florida, but never returned for classes. Within a year of graduating from Lincoln, he was arrested for selling marijuana.
His mother, Patricia, had raised him alone. They were very close, according to Young's grandmother and aunt. Patricia was eaten alive by fear of what would happen to him. While he awaited trial, she suffered a stroke.
When she lay dying in her hospital bed, she told relatives, "I can't go until I know what's going to happen to my Kevin." A month after her death at age 37, Young was given five years' probation on a misdemeanor drug-selling charge. He was a pallbearer at her funeral.
After his mother's death, Young went dark. Lurking inside him there may still have been a grief-wracked, guilt-stricken kid, but as far as the world was concerned, the young man out on the street every day was a stone-eyed, bandanna-wearing badman like the rest of them.
Police say Young was with Brian Patrick Griffin, who was two years younger than he, and Joshua Lewis, two years older, when the young men kicked in the front door of a drug house in the 3400 block of Latimer, at the southern edge of South Dallas, at 12:27 a.m. on November 9, 1997. Young says he was not carrying a gun. The police say he was carrying a .22-caliber handgun. Griffin had a 20-gauge shotgun, and Lewis was carrying a .38-caliber pistol. Their object was to steal drugs.
Young knocked, according to the police. He must have been familiar to the man inside, Anthony Hymes, because Hymes opened the door to him. Griffin rushed in with the shotgun, pointed it at Hymes, and squeezed the trigger, but the gun misfired. That gave Hymes the split second he needed to draw his own 9mm handgun and lift it to Griffin's face.
Griffin threw down the shotgun and went for Hymes' gun. They struggled, and during the struggle several shots were fired. When the fight was over, Griffin held the gun and Hymes had been shot several times, fatally. Lewis fled on foot. Young, the all-A basketball star who had been offered a full-ride scholarship the year before, was dragging himself to the house next door with a bullet in his spine, paralyzed from the waist down.
He is still paralyzed. No one has ever told him that his condition is permanent, and he talks of learning to walk again. But since he was shot, Kevin Young has not been in the kind of world where people get expensive tests and physical therapy. Young has been in the world where people get jail food and gangrene. The thing one doesn't want to say out loud, sitting by his bed, is that recovery -- whatever the possibilities might have been the night he was shot -- looks like a long shot now.
No one knows who shot Young -- Hymes or Griffin. No one really cares. He was there. He was an accessory to a gun murder for gain, a capital crime. As far as the law is concerned, he was just as involved in Anthony Hymes' murder as Griffin, even if Griffin pulled the trigger. The three of them went there with guns and intent to steal. A man was killed. The law says all three killed him.
On the other hand, it was a drug thing. By the moral math of the courthouse, the death of one more drug dealer is a less weighty matter than the death of a law-abiding citizen. Eventually, through the good offices of defense attorney Doug Parks, Brian Patrick Griffin was able to bargain down his capital murder charge, which would have carried a minimum penalty of life in prison, to a lesser non-capital murder charge. Griffin took a 10-year sentence in Huntsville. Parks declined to discuss the particulars of the plea bargain, but 10 years is obviously quite a bit better than life and much better than death, assuming you want to live. Joshua Lewis, who ran away, wound up with seven years on a second-degree robbery charge.
Why Kevin Young still has not been tried for a crime that occurred in 1997 is anyone's guess, depending on who's guessing. Greg Long, the assistant district attorney on the case, won't discuss it except to say that a trial is imminent. Young's lawyer, Howard Law, is an elderly courthouse regular who speaks to reporters through his wife, Mary, who answers the phone at their home, where she serves as her husband's legal assistant.
She says over the telephone that her husband has always operated on the assumption that delay is the best thing he could get for Young.
"When your client's guilty, it's not always too smart to push the DA," she says. "Kevin doesn't have any cards in his hand. He doesn't have any bargaining power. Sooner or later, the pressure is on for them to clear a bunch of cases, and then they're in a mood to do a little better on the deals."
Delay, wait, sit it out. It's the little man's dodge. If the truth is not on your side, and if you can't afford the kind of high-dollar defense it takes to overwhelm the truth, then she may be right: Your best bet is to sit still with your mouth shut and wait for the district attorney's office to wear down. Howard Law did manage to get Young charged with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony that is a step down from the murder one charge against Griffin.
But Kevin Young had a problem with the delay-and-wait strategy. Some of the officials responsible for his keeping even suggest, in trying to explain what happened to him, that he may have had a problem with the wanting-to-live part.
The bullet paralyzed him from the waist down, killing almost all of the sensation in his lower body as well as paralyzing the muscles that enabled him to urinate and defecate normally. He can urinate only with a catheter -- a tube inserted into his penis, through his urethra to his bladder -- and he frequently requires the help of someone else to remove impacted stools from his bowels by hand.
Young spent a week in jail after his arrest in late 1997. With Howard Law's help, he was able to post bond in early 1998 on both his aggravated robbery charge and a probation violation on the marijuana charge. Living in his grandmother's home in South Dallas, Young did a poor job of keeping appointments downtown with probation officers. Law asked Judge Edwin King to allow Young to report monthly instead of weekly, and King agreed. But even then Young failed to keep all of his appointments.
"All he had to do was call a day ahead of time and arrange for HandiRide to come get him," Mary Law says. "At one point Howard told him, 'You know, Kevin, if you can't make it down there on your own to keep your appointment, I'm sure the sheriff would be glad to send someone there to get you.'
"Well, Howard had left the house," she says, "and the phone rang, and it was Kevin. He said, 'I still don't have a ride, so just send the police on out.' The poor guy. He didn't understand Howard was trying to tell him he would be arrested if he kept missing."
The family paints a portrait of him during this period as lost in depression, slack-jawed and staring, alone in a darkened room for hours, numbed by what had become of him, still devastated by the loss of his mother and the possibility that he had contributed to her death, humiliated by his condition, and dead with despair.
But everyone has to do what the court says he has to do. The court said Young had to report. He wasn't doing it. Eventually, the probation officials had had enough. They went to Judge King, and he said he had had enough too. In April of this year, King ordered Young back to jail.
When he was examined at the jail hospital on April 19, Young was suffering from serious, draining bedsores at the base of his spine and on his buttocks. His clothing was heavily soiled with his own urine, feces, and drainage from the sores. He says he was soiled because he had been in his wheelchair all day without care.
Nurses washed him up, cleaned the smaller bedsores and packed the largest one, about 3 inches in diameter, with antiseptic gauze. They put him in a clean prison jumpsuit. It was a good start -- perhaps better care than he had been receiving at home -- but from there he was sent out into the general population of the jail, where he lived in a 12-man group cell.
Betty Culbreath, director of the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services, is in charge of the hospital wing of the jail and the medical care of inmates. She stoutly defends her department's performance and says there is not an issue in the jail of a lack of funding or personnel.
"I have more nurses and doctors over there now than there have ever been before," she says.
The full count is 66 nurses and three full-time doctors, a doctor for every tour of duty. But Culbreath also admits there are aspects of care, especially for a paraplegic, that necessarily suffer because the jail is a jail.
"There are probably things we should be doing for them that we can't do," she admits. "We can't give paraplegics [overhead] bars [to lift themselves with], because they use them for weapons. We can't give them slide boards [for help getting in and out of bed], because they use them for weapons."
She insists her staff at the jail does the best it can under the circumstances.
But according to Kevin Young's jail medical chart, obtained by the Dallas Observer, the fact is that his physical condition began to grow startlingly worse from the moment he entered the jail. Five days after the initial April 19 examination, the sore at the base of his spine had grown to a baseball-sized abscess; the other sores had worsened and were draining, and he had to be manually "de-impacted" of hardened stool that he had been unable to pass.
In the weeks ahead, Young's chart is filled with notations indicating that he had refused to come to the nursing station for changes of his dressings and had refused to sign a medical refusal form. None of the refusal forms attached to the copy of the medical chart obtained by the Observer bears his signature. Culbreath says her staff has other documentation to show that he refused.
Young's version of what was going on during that period is different. He says that he was lying on a bunk in his own waste and putrescence, deeply depressed, sick, perhaps on occasion unable to summon the strength or will to haul himself into his chair and down to the nursing station.
"They would just call and say I was supposed to report down there, and I might not have made it every time," Young says. "But I never refused no medicine, and I never refused to have my dressings changed."
In fact, the chart shows that he did get himself to the nurses every few days to ask for help evacuating his bowels. Urination, in the meantime, had developed into another issue.
When Young went back to jail, his chart shows that he was fitted with a "straight catheter" to allow urine to pass from his bladder to a bag. Culbreath and her staff say that he later demanded to have the permanent catheter removed. She says she can't imagine why anyone would voluntarily give up a permanent catheter in exchange for the alternative -- a messy process in which Young had to stick a catheter up his own penis every time he needed to urinate. While Young did not have sensation in his penis, he says the catheter often brought up blood, which he found emotionally distressing because of the damage he knew he was doing with the catheter.
"Why would he do that?" Culbreath asks. "I don't know."
Young says the answer is that he wouldn't volunteer for self-catheterization -- no one would. He says he was never offered a permanent catheter. "If they would have offered me that, I would have taken it."
Later entries in the chart confirm that he was using the "in-and-out" self-catheterization method, inserting it himself each time. The problem with that technique, he says, was that the jail would agree to provide him with only one catheter at a time.
"It says right on the package, 'for single use only.' It says it's not sterile after that," he says.
Young says -- and his chart confirms -- that he was instructed to wash out the catheter in his cell and use it again. He says, and the chart seems to confirm, that he was soon also plagued with a urinary-tract infection.
During the months of May and June, Young's grandmother Francis Young and his aunt Doris Mitchell spoke to him regularly on the telephone. Young's chart from May and early June is filled with optimistic notations by the jail's medical staff remarking how well his wounds from the bedsores are doing. The chart also contains complaints from the staff about his personal hygiene and references to the need for more regular showering.
Young says he can get out of his bed and into his chair by himself, but can't get from one chair to another by himself. Therefore he can't get out of his own chair by himself and into the shower chair. The only way he could shower was to shower in his wheelchair.
"Then the chair would be wet like for the rest of the day, and I would have to sit in it," he says.
During that same period, his aunt and grandmother were growing alarmed by what he had to say to them on the telephone every day -- that he was literally rotting away, that he was too sick to eat and that he was not receiving any kind of consistent medical care or medication.
On June 30, in spite of all the notations of success on the medical chart, Young was sent to Parkland Medical Hospital with runaway infected sores so raw and large that they required surgery. On July 1, he was already back at the jail, but now the notations on the chart were notably less cheerful. Parkland still had not provided the jail with any paperwork on what they had done for him. He came back with open surgical wounds and foul-smelling running sores, according to the chart.
In early July, Francis Young went to the jail to see him. She was shocked. "His face was all swollen up," she says, "and he was so sick and weak, he could barely hold his head up."
Young says he has a vague memory of those weeks, blurred by pain and semiconsciousness. Ironically, one of the things he remembers is an act of kindness by a guard -- kindness, in the relative context of the jail.
"I was vomiting all my food," he says. "I couldn't hold nothing down at all. And this guard brought me a little thing of milk of magnesia. He give it to me, and he told the other guys in my tank they had to try to help me hold something down, or he would have to put me in solitary confinement."
Young was terrified of being alone with his illness, without human company, with no one to call out for him if he began to die. Even though he was sick, he says, even though he stank of his own urine and feces and was beginning to stink of death itself, his fellow prisoners tried to help him stay out of solitary confinement by encouraging him to eat.
"We all got along pretty good," he says.
On July 3, a hastily scrawled notation on the chart -- barely legible, a dark hen-scratch, as if written under emergency circumstances -- shows that he has been vomiting all food; his skin is hot to the touch; his heart is beating faster than normal; he aches all over; and he is being sent back to Parkland.
Dr. Charles Silver, who treated Young after he was finally released from jail, says emphatically, "They saved his life at Parkland."
Parkland officials would not discuss Young's case, but a portion of the Parkland medical chart obtained by the Observer shows that the staff there considered him to be in critical condition. At the hospital, according to Young and Parkland's own records, he was informed that the 3-inch diameter bedsore he had been suffering when he went to jail had become a galloping case of gangrene during his 90 days there. Parkland doctors told him they might have to remove his right leg up to the hip to keep him alive.
Young agreed. He underwent three major operations in two days. The Parkland doctors were more successful than the worst-case scenario they had presented him. They didn't have to cut off his leg.
Two weeks later, on July 16, Young was returned to the jail. His multiple deep surgical wounds were not sewn closed; instead they were held open with Penrose drains -- devices used to keep a wound open while it dries and cleanses itself. When they sent him back to jail with open surgical wounds, the Parkland doctors also sent along a detailed list of instructions for diet and dressings as well as a list of prescriptions, including one for a powerful painkiller and two others for antibiotics.
Young says he never got the antibiotics. He says he lay in jail with open, running wounds, recovering from near-fatal gangrene, still battling a roaring urinary-tract infection, and they never got him his medications.
"I never got no antibiotics," he says. "I asked every day, Where's my medications? Have you got my antibiotics? They just said they was on order. All they give me was Motrin."
Young says the nurses were not unkind to him about it. "Some of them are pretty nice. But they got to work within the system. They just said it was on order, and it wasn't nothing they could do about it."
Betty Culbreath, after consulting with her staff, said that Young was either mistaken about what medicines had been given to him or lying. On a speakerphone with her head nurse in the office, she ticked off the names of powerful antibiotics she says he had been given.
The chart seems to disagree. Three days after Young left Parkland, his wounds were oozing green again. One leg was turning out at an odd angle. Young says he was rotting again. The July 19 entry on his chart, the last before he was released from jail, says, "Is he getting all of his meds on med card? I need to know today!"
From the context of the chart, the notation seems to have been written by a doctor.
A note just below it shows that he has received Lortab, a pain medicine. Next to it, a note in yet another hand says, "Meds on order. Dr. Bowers notified."
Culbreath says it is a misreading of the notation to conclude that Young's medicine was still on order, that it had not yet been received.
"It's not that kind of order," she says. "That's a reference to the doctor's order. That note means the medicine is on the doctor's order."
Possible. Doesn't seem to add up, in context with the rest of the chart. But possible.
The jail doctors were not available for comment. Culbreath spoke for them. She says the responsibility for providing Young with his medicine lay with Parkland, anyway -- that it's Parkland's job to order the drugs from its own pharmacy and send them back to the jail with the inmate.
The public relations office of Parkland told the Observer it could not discuss Young's case specifically, but agreed to research the general policy issue of whose job it is to get prescribed medicine to a prisoner. Spokeswoman April Foran called back to say that Parkland does not provide medication to inmates. She says Parkland's policy calls for the medical staff to fax prescriptions to the jail, where the jail medical staff is supposed to fill the prescriptions from the jail's own pharmacy.
On July 22, after Howard Law demanded a copy of Young's jail medical records and after the Observer had asked to see him, Young was released from jail. Judge King was on vacation that week. Law and Greg Long, the assistant district attorney, persuaded a visiting judge to send him home.
No one told Kevin Young why, after nearly rotting to death for three months, he was suddenly being set free. All he knows is that he was in, and then he was out. His grandmother took him home for a few days and then took him to Tri-City Hospital for an examination. Dr. Silver, who saw him there, sent him straight to a room and told him that he could not possibly go home and that, after leaving Tri-City, he would require several weeks, possibly months, in a specialized wound-care clinic. Dr. Silver says now that Young is no longer suffering from gangrene but that he still has several large wounds that will need time to heal.
When the Observer asked Young why he thought he was out, he said, "They put me on probation."
But they didn't. They couldn't put him on probation, because he hasn't been tried. They reinstated his bond, which had been technically violated but not forfeited back when he missed his appointments.
Greg Long says Young will have his day in court. When the Observer first spoke to Long, he said the court date was August 5, but by the time this story went to press, that date had slipped, joining the fat file folder of other prior court dates that have never happened. At present, there seems to be no date set for Young to return to court, pending his medical recovery.
Long says that when Young does go to court, he expects him to "plead guilty to some type of offense" and then wait to see what the judge gives him.
Would he be given any kind of deal or agreement beforehand, so that he would have some inkling what his plea would bring him?
That was all news to Young when the Observer told him in his hospital bed. He thought he was done with it. He says Howard Law had not visited him or spoken to him since his release the week before. "Nobody never told me about no court date. I thought I got probation."
A reasonable person -- a person not familiar with jail or the criminal world -- might assume Kevin Young should have some kind of civil rights case against the county under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Not likely, says Professor Jordan Steiker, who is on the faculty of the University of Texas Law School.
"The court has been reluctant to find any prison conditions to be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment," Steiker says.
Some of it has to do with the political mood of the country on crime and the kinds of laws Congress has been passing. "The Prison Reform Act of 1996 specifically addresses suits filed by prisoners challenging the conditions of their confinement and makes it much more difficult for them to prevail."
He pointed out that one of the conditions that must be met for execution is the future threat a convicted criminal may pose. But even when inmates sentenced to execution have later become paraplegics, clearly no longer able to pose a threat, the courts have not been interested in hearing about it.
That's how it is now.
Betty Culbreath says she thinks Kevin Young rotted away in her hospital because he didn't want to do the things he needed to do to stay alive.
"He was depressed. He was depressed about his mama dying, about what had happened to him, what had become of him. That's what happened."
Kevin Young is accused of a terrible crime -- taking part in a murder for gain. It's his fault he got shot. It's his fault he missed his appointments and had to go to jail. If everyone involved in his medical care isn't already covered by some kind of statement or story, they will be a week from now.
But all that means is that it can happen. That it does happen. Somebody else is up there now, waiting, convicted of no crime, rotting. Or will be soon.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.