The Tragic Death Of Otto Warmbier And What We Can Learn From It

Let’s judge our own country by how we treat our prisoners.
06/22/2017 03:35 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2017

My heart goes out to the family of Otto Warmbier, the young American citizen who recently died after his time in a North Korean prison. He was a handsome young college student who, when traveling to North Korea in 2016, allegedly stole a propaganda poster from a hotel lobby. Sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, he ended up in a coma from which he did not survive. The 22-year old died less than a week after being returned to the United States in a vegetative state. What happened to him was atrocious. Every American who has followed the story is outraged. The outrage transcends politics. As it should.

The student’s death induced strongly-worded rebukes from the highest levels of our government. Republicans and Democrats alike condemned the atrocity. “Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong Un regime,” remarked Republican Senator John McCain. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff agreed: “The barbaric treatment of Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime amounts to the murder of a U.S. citizen.” And top lawmakers from both parties demanded “accountability” and began discussing a host of retaliatory measures, including sanctions and travel restrictions.

The reaction to the death of Otto Warmbier has caused me to reflect on the lack of corresponding outrage when these atrocities occur on our own soil.

President Trump called what happened a “total disgrace” and expressed his “administration’s resolve to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.” In remarks at the National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein echoed this sentiment: “North Korea will not hold anyone accountable for Otto’s death. It is a totalitarian government with no concept of the rule of law. No civil rights. No due process. No justice.”

The bi-partisan outrage is not surprising. When Americans learn of jail atrocities in other countries, we are always collectively outraged. We were outraged at what our own servicemen and women did at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. For weeks, it was the lead story in every major American print and TV news media outlet. We all remember the iconic images and magazine covers. The condemnation was swift and universal and came from all levels of our government. We are similarly outraged whenever we read about how Saudi Arabia and Russia and China and other repressive regimes treat their prisoners. Otto Warmbier’s senseless death is the current focus of America’s collective wrath.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and many other respected leaders have since echoed versions of this principle. As a civil rights attorney who focuses on jail and prison death cases, I couldn’t agree more. You can and should judge a country by how it treats its prisoners. And under that test, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China all get an F. But the United States of America also gets a failing grade, and not just for what happened during the Iraq War at Abu Ghraib.

Here in the United States we treat our own inmates like subhuman animals. In the past two decades, my law firm, Budge & Heipt, has handled case after case of unspeakable atrocities in American jails. Totally avoidable deaths of U.S. citizens. Most were pretrial detainees who had not even had their day in court—people accused of crimes but convicted of nothing. Many were arrested for small things and would have never done a day of jail time even they had been convicted. They were just American men and women, presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, being detained in an American jail and awaiting their due process of law. All of them died. And all their deaths were atrocious. Beatings. Suffocation. Untreated drug and alcohol withdrawal. Dehydration and starvation. Denial of life-sustaining prescription medication and emergency medical care. Preventable suicides. The lives of black males are disproportionately affected, but the victims span all demographics.

The reaction to the death of Otto Warmbier has caused me to reflect on the lack of corresponding outrage when these atrocities occur on our own soil. Most of our cases receive local news coverage. A few receive national media attention. But not one of them has ever generated a call for accountability from any nationally elected government official. No member of Congress has referred to any of our jail-related death cases as “murders” or vowed to take responsive action. And, to date, despite the tens of millions of dollars we have won in civil settlements and jury verdicts spanning the past two decades, not a single jail official or employee has been convicted of a crime for their involvement in any of these atrocities. Most incidents are swept under the rug with neither a credible investigation nor any adverse employment action for those responsible. What our government says about the lack of accountability in undemocratic regimes could easily be said about us.

For most parents who have lost sons or daughters to cruel and needless deaths in American jails, there is no such solace.

I can’t even begin to imagine the pain felt by the family of Otto Warmbier. Their lives have been turned upside-down and will never be the same. But the grief and anguish they feel is no less palpable than that felt by the families of untold numbers of others who have senselessly suffered and died preventable deaths in American jails. At least the parents of Otto Warmbier have a small slice of comfort in knowing that our government supports them and condemns what happened to their son. For most parents who have lost sons or daughters to cruel and needless deaths in American jails, there is no such solace.

Think about the family of Terrill Thomas, for example, a 38-year old mentally ill man with six children, who died of profound dehydration in the Milwaukee County Jail after his access to drinking water was cut off for seven days. Yes, an American citizen, mentally ill and not convicted of any crime, died on U.S. soil, in a U.S. jail, because he had no access to water—due to a sick and twisted form of punishment. The man in charge of that jail is the notorious Sheriff David A. Clark Jr., who was given a prime speaking gig at the Republican National Convention—three months after the death of Terrill Thomas—and who began his speech by declaring, “Blue Lives Matter!” Imagine how the family of Terrill Thomas felt then or later when President-elect Trump considered Sheriff Clarke for a cabinet post in his administration.

Think of the family of Michael Sabbie, who was arrested for a misdemeanor. A husband and father of four minor children. A medically vulnerable person, who suffered from asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. An American citizen who was denied desperately-needed medical care despite his acute respiratory distress and who was pepper sprayed and left to die alone in a jail cell. Imagine how his family feels, knowing that no one has even been charged with a crime or otherwise been held responsible despite a highly disturbing video viewed by over 16 million people.

Think about the family of John Patrick Walter, a pretrial detainee, who was inexcusably deprived of his prescription benzodiazepine medication, sending him into a state of life-threatening withdrawal, causing him to experience terrifying hallucinations and a host of other excruciating symptoms. This man endured unimaginable suffering; unable to eat or sleep, he lost over 30 pounds and died naked on the concrete floor of his jail cell, shaking and convulsing, in full view of detention officers and jail medical staff. He was pepper sprayed, tased, strapped to a restraint chair, and sustained multiple broken ribs, internal bleeding, and severe bruising from head to toe. Imagine how his family feels knowing that there was no legitimate investigation following his atrocious death, that no one was disciplined or reprimanded, and that no wrongdoing has been admitted after more than a year of litigation.

And imagine how countless other grieving families feel when they see those who killed their loved ones remain in their elected positions or jobs—unpunished and even promoted.

What happened to Otto Warmbier was inexcusable. We should be outraged about it. But we should channel some of that righteous outrage in a positive direction, one of self-reflection and awareness. Let’s no longer ignore how we treat our own detained citizens. Let’s end the toxic model of for-profit jails and prisons. Let’s stop treating our addicted and our mentally ill brothers and sisters as criminals. Let’s reexamine our system of mass incarceration—a system that imprisons more than 2.3 million Americans, a comparable number to that of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea combined. Let’s rethink the morality of capital punishment. And let’s demand justice and accountability for jail and prison abuse that occurs on our own shore.

Let’s proudly judge our country by how we treat our prisoners.

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