Prison stonewalling St.Louis mother’s quest for info on son’s drug death

ST. LOUIS — A mother is suing the state Department of Corrections to force the agency to release medical and investigative reports connected to her son’s death from a drug overdose while in custody, citing Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

A prison employee told Mary James her son died at Mercy Hospital on June 1 after he “got ahold” of K2, or synthetic marijuana, while incarcerated at the Northeast Correctional Center in Pike County, according to the lawsuit.

James filed four Sunshine requests for her son’s records, as well as prison policies and procedures. The Department of Corrections records department has produced heavily redacted documents and unrelated documents and denied or ignored the specifics of her requests, according to the lawsuit filed in Cole County on Wednesday by attorneys from the ACLU and ArchCity Defenders.

“The Department’s illegal withholding of records has only worsened Ms. James’ pain,” said Gillian Wilcox, deputy director for litigation at the ACLU of Missouri. “She is not only grieving over the death of her son but also cannot get basic information about how he died.”

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Mary James’ son, LeVaughn Dupree James, had been in prison since 2018 for stealing from a Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in downtown St. Louis, after multiple convictions for stealing and other nonviolent crimes. While incarcerated in Pike County, James said her son called her almost every day until May 22.

That was the day jail staff discovered her son unresponsive. It was not until May 26, after multiple attempts to contact the prison’s warden and staff, that Mary James says she learned her son was at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis.

When she arrived, her son was on a ventilator. Doctors informed her that her son had gone into cardiac arrest, diagnosed with acute metabolic encephalopathy, severe sepsis with septic shock, pneumonia, seizure disorder, acute kidney injury, and acute respiratory failure with hypoxia.

She noted in a statement LeVaughn, 45, was her only son.

“I’m so used to him calling me, cracking jokes with me, asking, ‘Mom, how are you doing?’ or asking what I’m cooking,” she said.

According to Missouri’s Sunshine Law, she is entitled to the public and closed records related to her son’s death. She has also asked for an autopsy as well as toxicology, coroner, incident and arrest reports and more.

The petition also raises concerns about the rise in drug overdoses in Missouri prisons, specifically at the prison where LeVaughn James was incarcerated.

“This lawsuit is about transparency and a mother’s right to know what happened to her son,” said Brandon Jackson, staff attorney at ArchCity Defenders. “The families of the incarcerated have a right to know what’s going on.”

The Missouri Department of Corrections declined to comment on the case.


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