The News & Observer has the wrenching details of a man killed by the North Carolina prison system.

Michael Anthony Kerr spent the last five days of his life handcuffed in a prison cell, unresponsive, off his mental health medicine, and lying in his feces and urine. An hour or two before the former Army sergeant died, officials at Alexander Correctional Institution put him into a wheelchair and drove him 2-1/2 hours east to a prison hospital in Raleigh.

When Kerr, 53, arrived at Central Prison, his body was cold.

Somewhere between Taylorsville and Raleigh, as the prison vehicle passed emergency rooms at eight hospitals, Kerr died of dehydration.

“They treated him like a dog,” said Brenda Liles, his sister.

Most dogs are treated far better. The state failed Kerr time and time again. His death came after more than a month in solitary confinement. We tend think that people who end up with long prison terms and who then spend long stretches in solitary, are violent sociopaths who are beyond redemption. It would be easy to think that about Kerr, who was serving a 31-year sentence after a series of larceny convictions, capped by an incident in which he fired several rounds into a home.

But read a bit more and the story gets more complicated. This was a man who had been broken by grief.

Kerr was born in Sampson County, in southeastern North Carolina, in 1960 to a family of six boys and six girls. He joined the Army in 1979, serving in an artillery unit. After an honorable discharge in 1991 from Fort Sill, he sold real estate in Lawton, Okla., and was pastor of the Faith Temple church.

While an intensely religious man, he began getting in trouble with the law in 1995, with a string of larceny convictions, and served 10 months in prison.

Liles, his sister, said Kerr began falling apart after two of his sons were murdered in Sampson County: Anthony Kerr in Harrells in May 2007, and Gabriel Kerr in a Garland juke joint in June 2008.

“That’s when he began to have those nervous breakdowns,” Liles said. “He had two or three.” . . .

In prison, Kerr was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition in which the person experiences schizophrenia symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, as well as mood disorders such as mania or depression.

Prison officials put Kerr into solitary confinement in February. For several weeks, guards observed him standing, sitting or sleeping, according to a prison log.

Sometimes he lay on the floor singing; at other times he kicked, banged or pecked on his cell door. On four occasions, he plugged up his sink to flood the cell, and guards periodically cut the water off. He was held in full restraints or handcuffs for days at a time.

So after diagnosing Kerr with a mental illness, the state of North Carolina refused to treat him . . . and it put him in solitary confinement. When he reacted the way you might expect someone with an untreated disorder held in isolation to act, they put him in restraints, then cut off his access to water. He ultimately died of dehydration.
State prison officials conducted their own investigation and did discipline a number of employees. But they’ve been typically obstinate about letting anyone from outside the corrections community conduct a review.

The state Department of Public Safety has released almost no information to the public on Kerr’s March 12 death. Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry declined to discuss the facts of the case but said he called in the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the death. . . .

Other state agencies have faced obstacles investigating the case. An agent for the State Bureau of Investigation had to get a court order to obtain Kerr’s records.

As the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy, prison officials’ help was so minimal that the pathologist could not determine the manner of death: accident, suicide or homicide.

Days after the autopsy was released and the lack of cooperation became public, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh opened a grand jury investigation of the death.

Kerr’s is only the latest horrifying story we’ve heard in recent months. You may recall Darren Rainey, the mentally ill Florida inmate whose skin was boiled off his bones when guards locked him in a scalding shower as a punishment. Former employees later alleged that staff at that Dade County facility made a “sport” of brutalizing the mentally ill. Or Jerome Murdough, who died of heat exposure after left unattended for hours in a cell in a Rikers unit for mentally ill patients. This, despite the fact that prison officials knew a heating unit malfunction had raised the temperature in those cells to dangerously high levels. Or Christopher Lopez, a schizophrenic man in Colorado who suffered two seizures and died on the concrete floor of a prison cell while guards allegedly mocked and laughed at him. Prison officials waited a year and a half before bothering to report his death.

In just the last couple of years, we’ve seen in-custody deaths recently shed light on prison conditions and medical and mental health treatment in Maine, San Diego, Florida, Louisville, Alaska and California. Prison guards in Pennsylvania were recently alleged to have staged fights and competitions between inmates, contests the guards called the “Retard Olympics,” offering some insight into both the guards’ brutality and their regard for mental illness. We’ve also seen revelations accusing prison guards of allowing or even encouraging fights in Cook County, Ill.; Orleans Parish, La.; upstate New York; a private prison in Idaho; and Mississippi. And here at The Watch, I’ve looked at the mistreatment of people held in cells on low-level drug charges, which in at least a couple of cases has resulted in death.

It’s no doubt a difficult task to run a prison. We ask prison officials to keep guards and inmates safe and to keep dangerous people away from society, and to do it all in a way that’s humane. That last component is perhaps the most difficult to retain. It’s certainly the easiest of the three to compromise. But it’s also critically important. You can tell a lot about a society’s values by how well it treats its incarcerated.

But then, look at our values. Americans not only accept violence and sexual assault in our prisons, but also a large part of the population considers it a given — it’s just another part of a convict’s punishment. We’re not just comfortable with prison rape, we often find it humorous (even SpongeBob once made a prison rape joke), or we revel in the thought of inflicting it on people we abhor, members of groups we consider the enemy, or stand-ins for groups of people we find distasteful. (It’s a common sentiment to wish prison rape upon political opponents, particularly those who have been accused or convicted of crimes.)

If those of us far removed from prisons don’t take the humanity of the incarcerated seriously, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the officials we ask to actually run the prisons engage in the sort of sadism and brutality we see in these stories.