SUNDAY EDITION | Video shows final moments of Ky. inmate who starved to death

LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – The Kentucky Department of Corrections paid an inmate who starved to death in 2014 while incarcerated $400,000 to settle a lawsuit that had been ongoing for years, according to an agreement obtained by WDRB News.

The settlement between the family of James Kenneth Embry and the state was reached in March 2019 but has not been reported. Embry’s family also settled with the medical provider for the prison in June but the amount is not available under the state open records law.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Attorneys for Embry's family also couldn't be immediately reached. 

Embry starved to death on Jan. 13, 2014, after a months-long hunger strike at the Kentucky State Penitentiary when medical personnel mistakenly failed to move him to the prison infirmary after he refused 12 consecutive meals.

At the time, a nurse at the prison ordered inmate Embry moved to the prison infirmary but a medical director overruled the decision, saying that while Embry refused food that day, he took at least one drink of tea, meaning he was no longer officially on a hunger strike.

Later that day, medical staff arrived to find Embry, 57, unresponsive, slumped over in his solitary jail cell in Eddyville. He was initially handcuffed as nurses tried in vain to revive him.  

The cause of death was starvation and dehydration. The Lyon County Coroner ruled it a suicide. Embry had refused 35 of his last 36 meals, shedding more than 50 pounds during a hunger strike that began months earlier. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, he weighed about 120 pounds, down from 174 in September of 2013.

The failure to send Embry to the infirmary was the last in a series of mistakes over several months that cost Embry his life – allowing a man to starve to death while surrounded by jail personnel and medical staffers, according to an internal investigation.

The Embry case drew national headlines when he died – two medical staffers resigned and the lead doctor was fired, among other fallout. A prison video of the last moments of Embry’s life, showed him emaciated, his pelvic bones jutting from his body as medical personnel try to revive him.

Records released in the civil case and obtained through open records requests – including an internal and criminal investigation -- exposed lapses in medical treatment and a failure by the jail to follow procedures.

For example, an internal investigation concluded that “virtually none of the procedures” outlined in how to deal with a hunger strike were followed in Embry’s case.

“The death of Inmate James Embry occurred as the result of a systemic failure at the Kentucky State Penitentiary involving many interacting issues,” the investigation concluded.  “In summary, the failure of many interacting systems to address a correctable situation and to follow written standing orders and protocols led to the ultimate death of Inmate Embry.”

Embry was supposed to be medically monitored every day – weighed, vital signs taken, his blood and urine tested.

All of the employees involved in the case no longer work for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. One employee resigned while under investigation, and another was allowed to resign after appealing to the state personnel board. A contract medical employee with Correct Care Solutions had his access to the institutions revoked at the time.

Embry’s death prompted not only an internal investigation but a probe by the Kentucky State Police.

Lyon County Commonwealth’s Attorney G.L. Ovey considered criminal charges against prison staffers. But on July 13, 2015, after hearing testimony about Embry’s death, a Lyon County grand jury “found no evidence of any criminal conduct,” according to state police records.

Embry had a reported history of mental illness but stopped taking his medication while in prison in July 2013.

In the ensuing months, Embry repeatedly refused to eat and threatened to harm himself.  On Dec. 11, 2013, Embry was pepper-sprayed and put in a restraint chair after scratching himself with a plastic utensil.

He repeatedly threatened to hurt himself and said he “has nothing to live for,” according to the internal investigation.

He never left his cell for recreation the entire 46 days he was in segregation, and left his cell to shower only once in his last 19 days, according to the records.

Embry was repeatedly disciplined for refusing to eat and harming himself.

He was serving a nine-year sentence for drug offenses.

The internal investigation recommended numerous changes, including urging the prison put in protocols to clearly outline what constitutes the beginning and end of a hunger strike and review the practice of prescribing and re-starting medications with inmates in segregation.

Copyright 2020 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.