Michigan family urges awareness for preventable prison deaths not related to COVID-19

Posted at 8:26 AM, Jul 24, 2020

Justice for Jonny is a new campaign started by the family of Jonathan Lancaster who died in a Michigan prison last year before COVID-19.

He didn’t have to. The death is at the center of a federal lawsuit filed late last year and is in negotiations for a settlement.

Danielle Dunn is Jonathan’s sister who tells 7 Action News, “This should never happen to anybody’s family. And I hope to make sure it doesn’t happen again at least in the state of Michigan.”

Jonathan Lancaster was doing time at the Alger Prison in the U.P. for armed robbery and has previous assaultive crimes. The lawsuit says he had a history of mental illness and in the two weeks leading up to his death in March of last year “he lost 51 pounds, 26 percent of his body weight”.

And that “he continued to deteriorate physically and mentally” while prison staff “failed to obtain appropriate medical treatment.” Attorneys for the family say all the information in the lawsuit came from MDOC records.

On the final day of his life, March 11, Lancaster was cleared to be transported to another facility for medical treatment and placed in a restraint chair to be prepared for transfer. The lawsuit says he had been left unattended for over four hours and died.

The cause of death was dehydration.

One of the attorneys for the family is Ali Charara who tells 7 Action News, “Make no mistake about it. This isn’t a case of people making an honest mistake or forgetting something. This is a case of employees in a prison watching Jonny die. They watched him die and let it happen.”

The family points to other Michigan prison death cases that didn’t have to happen, including one in Washtenaw County where a prison guard shouted out “somebody owes me lunch” betting on an inmate committing suicide. That guard was sentenced to six months in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

Danielle Dunn tells 7 Action News their case is not about money but awareness.

“Absolutely it’s not about money. No, it’s about exposing what happens in our correctional facilities. So many of these things are hidden. Families are paid off there are settlements, whatever it is."

"And they go away.”

The family has started the Justice for Jonny campaign on Facebook.

The state has a contract with Corizon for medical and mental services inside Michigan prisons.

This lawsuit names 11 employees and the prison warden. Neither the state nor the company would comment on the suit or say whether any reforms were instituted as a result of Lancaster’s death because of the pending litigation.