Man Died of Neglect, Inmates Say
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.
The California prison system has a detailed policy on hunger strikes that requires correctional officers and medical staff to follow numerous procedures. Guards must document in writing any refusal of meals, determine the reason for the hunger strike and report it to a supervisor and healthcare staff.
Under the rules, nurses and doctors must visit an inmate in his cell daily and assess weight, physical and emotional condition, blood pressure and fluid loss. If an inmate’s condition grows worse, the prison can force-feed fluids and nutrients.
None of this was done for Singh, corrections officials acknowledged.
But they now say that Singh hadn’t officially declared a hunger strike, and that his case falls into a grayer area.
“He was refusing meals sporadically, but it wasn’t an existing hunger strike,” said Kelley Santoro, the prison’s public information officer. “Was he eating sporadically because he was a vegetarian and didn’t like the food served to him? Was he being monitored? All that is under investigation.”
But the prisoners who shared his cellblock tell a different story -- of an inmate who didn’t have the language skills to communicate that he was on a hunger strike. His refusal to leave his cell to go to the dining hall, coupled with his severe weight loss and physical deterioration, should have brought the same level of care as that of a hunger striker, inmates told Romero and two members of her staff.
“Here is a guy who’s clinically depressed and starving himself, and there’s no indication in the logbook that medical staff is responding to his needs,” Romero said. “No one went to his cell to check on him, despite repeated concerns from inmates and some officers that he was wasting away.”
Singh’s care presented the prison system with challenges, according to Sikh community leaders, his former attorneys and inmates who shared his cellblock in the prison’s so-called “special needs yard,” a section for sexual offenders and others who are considered prey by more dangerous inmates.
Singh was not only frail and burdened with a bad leg, but he also was fighting severe depression after having been convicted of sexually touching three children in a case that divided the Sikh community around Modesto. Singh, a husband and father, had been the temple’s high priest until an opposing faction, calling for new leadership, forced him out.
He continued to provide religious training to Sikh children at their homes. It was during one such visit that an 8-year-old girl alleged that he had touched her beneath her underwear during reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, the religion’s Scriptures.
The victim’s family had been discouraged by fellow Sikhs from filing charges, according to community members. There was concern that the case would bring negative media attention and ridicule to the growing Sikh community in the San Joaquin Valley. The young girl would be marked for life, it was said, a stigma that might hurt her chances to marry.
But the girl’s parents went forward with the case and were quickly supported by another family, who alleged that their young son and daughter also had been touched inappropriately by Singh. Hardev Grewal, a court-appointed interpreter, said the evidence against Singh had been strong but he had refused to consider a plea bargain.
“His attorney tried to convince him that, if he takes a deal, he might not die in prison. But he felt it would bring a bad name to him and his family,” Grewal said.
“He ended up testifying on his own behalf. I don’t know if it was the language or cultural differences, or if he didn’t understand the American way of justice. But he ended up performing poorly.”
He was convicted and sentenced in June 2001 to 27 years to life. Inmates said he never acclimated to prison. He would clasp his hands in prayer and bow to them and guards, but would grow frustrated at every meal when the prison staff insisted on serving him meat.
The more he protested the food, fellow inmates said, the more insistent staff members became. As a Sikh priest, he viewed any meat on his plate as defiling the vegetables. What food he could eat was often little more than a piece of bread with peanut butter.
“One inmate told us this whole thing is about vegetables. ‘If they would have just given him vegetables instead of meat, he would be alive today,’ ” Romero said. “But every time he was in line, they insisted on slopping down the meat.’ ”
Santoro said Singh had never followed procedure and formally requested a vegetarian diet through a prison chaplain. But inmates told Romero that Singh lacked the language skills to do so. Besides, he was a priest himself.
The inmates traced his rapid deterioration to an incident in December when a supervising officer grew frustrated with Singh and slammed the cell door on the inmate’s hand.
Singh was clearly injured and in pain but the guard, who had treated Singh poorly in the past, wouldn’t allow him to seek medical treatment, according to inmate letters. Singh became so fearful that he hardly left his cell after that, they said.
“The other inmates showed a lot of compassion for him. They tried to bring him back food but it was never enough,” Romero said. “He became nothing but bones. The inmates filed reports and told counselors about his condition. But nothing was ever done.
“Some of the supervisors at the prison told me this was a case of one inmate falling through the cracks. But this isn’t about cracks. This is about the worst kind of neglect.”