‘I’m going to die in here’: Family pushes for change after Michigan prisoner left to die of dehydration

‘We wouldn’t treat animals this way’

It’s been three years since Jonathan Lancaster died behind bars, strapped to a chair and his family wants to know why more isn’t being done to hold prison staff accountable.

It’s been three years since Jonathan Lancaster died behind bars, strapped to a chair and his family wants to know why more isn’t being done to hold prison staff accountable.

Lancaster’s family did win a civil suit against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) worth more than $2.5 million, but there still is no closure for the family. They said those responsible for their brother’s death have not been held accountable and they worry for the safety of others.

Danielle Dunn is Lancaster’s sister. She likes to remember her brother, his softer side, before the 38-year-old got in trouble with the law.

“He loves sports, he loved animals, specifically dogs,” she said

Lancaster was a divorced father who struggled with alcohol and depression. She said he made some bad choices and was sentenced to prison for armed robbery.

“It was a serious crime, you know, and he deserved to be in jail for that crime,” Dunn said.

Lancaster was serving his time and worked his way down to a level two facility.

“He had already been in prison for about eight years at this point. So it was not something I really worried about, you know, him being mistreated by staff,” she said.

Dunn said a fight her brother had with another inmate landed him in solitary confinement.

“At this point, he’s lost a significant amount of weight, he lost over a quarter of his body weight. I believe it was 51 pounds in total,” Dunn said.

“I get a phone call from him,” Dunn said. “He’s whispering in the phone. He is telling me that the officers are going to kill him, ‘I’m going to die in here.’ And I began to plead at that point. ‘He needs medical care, he needs medical treatment,’ something needs to happen.”

Lancaster put in restraints and ‘essentially left to die’ of dehydration

Dunn knew her brother was struggling with his mental health and she feared the prison was not addressing his issues.

“He’s moved to the observation cell, where he is then put in restraints and essentially left to die,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, more than four hours after being placed in a restraint chair, Lancaster was found unresponsive and not breathing. He had been “left unattended” despite his “dire medical condition.”

His official cause of death was listed as dehydration.

“There’s a point where they restrain him and then there’s a point he’s dead. What happened in that time,” Dunn said. “He dies in that chair and on -- I’ve been told on the video that there’s an officer that comes by out of view of the camera, but you can clearly hear and he says, ‘Oh, he’s not dead yet. I think he still has a pulse.’ This is the level of -- I don’t even know how to describe it. Dehumanizing, just no care concern for a human being in the world, we wouldn’t treat animals this way.”

MDOC denies request to speak to Local 4

Local 4′s requests to speak with someone on behalf of MDOC were denied.

Instead, an email sent from a spokesperson stated that 21 staff members were investigated, ultimately six were fired and 10 were disciplined.

“When we received his body at the funeral home, I almost couldn’t recognize him to be honest with you it. He was so gaunt. For them to look at him and not see that there was an issue,” Dunn said.”There is no way, there is no way, he -- he was so gaunt. It was clear there was an issue.”

The family is also very concerned about the use of solitary confinement and is currently pushing for a bill to change who can be housed in solitary confinement and said culture, leadership and policies must change so this never happens again.

Michigan Sen. Stephanie Chang introduced Senate Bill 1060 and Senate Bill 1061, which make changes to solitary confinement in Michigan.

Read: More investigations coverage

Have a case you’d like us to look into? Reach the Local 4 investigative team at 313-962-9348, or email Karen Drew at kdrew@wdiv.com.

More information is available at the links below:

About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.