Donna Terrell’s Special Report: Death Behind Bars

Local News

Imagine this, you get a phone call in the middle of the night, telling you your daughter is dead.

You ask,” What happened?”

The voice on the other end will only say, ” I can assure you it was natural causes.”

Now imagine, that daughter, is in the care of the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Yes, she is a prison inmate.

Some people might say, “tough”.

Others might be more sympathetic.

How would you feel?

One family’s story goes exactly like this.

“You lose your family member,” Bonnie Robertson says. “You get this horrible generic call from the prison. This happens all the time. The only difference with Nikki is that she has a family that isn’t just going to go away.”

Bonnie Robertson is an attorney, and she has spent the last two years trying to get answers on how and why her sister, Nikki Rust, a prison inmate died on January 11, 2014 in the care of the Arkansas Department of Correction.

“This is the medical record,” Robertson said as she showed Rust’s records.

This story begins in the couple of weeks before Nikki died where some sort of virus began to circulate among the inmates.

Robertson has gathered piles of papers, including some medical records and a handwritten journal where Nikki wrote about her bunk mate who caught that virus.

The journal read, ” My bunkie is deathly, the medical here is a joke.”

The next day, her cell mate died.

Nikki writes, ” Last night we tried to get them to take her back to medical. She died because of their lack of care.”

Nikki would also write that she too was feeling flu-like symptoms, and according to medical records, became physically unable to get out of bed.

“I am really, really sick, need to lay back down. I hurt, so cold,” she wrote.

That would turn out to be Nikki’s last journal entry.

Records show, she was put into an ambulance and taken to two different hospitals because the first one couldn’t provide the care she needed.

Nikki’s mother, Deanna Rust, was her emergency contact, and according to Arkansas Department of Correction rules, should have been contacted once Nikki was in an emergency situation.

“It been awful. Deanna Rust said. “It’s been terrible.

Nikki’s mother asked why they hadn’t contacted her, and an email from a Department of Correction spokesperson claimed, “This emergency room trip was not in response to a life-threatening situation.”

Robertson did not believe the explanation, ” There were 13 hours that my sister was alive, but in ICU. But no one in the prison cared enough to call anyone in her family,” she said.

Now, they have filed a lawsuit against Arkansas Department of Correction, claiming Nikki had “Flu-like Symptoms at least one day after her bunkmate died.”

They claim prison officials “failed and refused to take generally accepted measures to treat her illness”.

Robertson believes basic care could have saved her sister’s life.

When Robertson was asked what the basic care would have been, she replied, ” In Nikki’s case, an antibiotic.”

The family also says prison officials refused to give a clear picture on how Nikki died.

Roberto made several phone calls to get answers, and was told she needed a court order.

Robertson said it was based on legislation, to her understanding.

“This law was written back in the 40’s, and hasn’t been looked at since then, since I didn’t know anything about it,” Robertson said.

State Senator, Jeremy Hutchinson, chairs the judicial committee that oversees the Department of Correction, and was surprised to know this.

“It’s certainly not doing our citizens, who happen to have family members incarcerated, any favors,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said that it takes an attorney to file a court order, and it’s costly, even if you do have the money.

He says it is not a quick efficient process, and it could take months.

When Robertson was asked, “Do you miss her?”

She simply replied after a long pause, “Of course I do.”

The family still grieves, and even with information released through court order, they still have questions.

“They can’t hide when they’ve been sued,” Robertson said.

Through their lawsuit, they hope to know more about what led up to Nikki’s death.

When James Depriest, Chief Counsel for the Arkansas Department of Correction, heard that Nikki Rust’s family said that she was in ICU for 13 hours, and her emergency contact was never notified he said, “That’s seems like an awful long time to me.”

In an email,  a spokesperson for the prison later said the prison Chaplin tried to called twice before finally reaching someone.

Even though the email from two years ago said that the Chaplin was not notified to contact the family because it wasn’t a life-threatening situation.

State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson says he intends to present legislation to make it easier for families to get medical information when a loved one dies in prison.

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