Longform

Ken McGill left jail behind, but he can't escape the stroke he suffered there

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"In my opinion, I was a burden to them," he says. "It felt like not one person in the whole place cared."

At one point, it felt like his throat was closing up, and Ken had to shout to be heard. It sounded like he was yelling at everyone. Looking back, Ken figures that was the last straw for the nurses. A little before two in the morning, they told him he would be spending the rest of the night in the SHU — the jail's Security Housing Unit, also known as solitary confinement.

"It is literally the darkest place in the whole jail," Ken says of the basement-level chamber where he was placed. The only light came from a faint iridescent bulb overhead, bathing everything in an unsettling blue hue. It was the same cell where Austin Sigg, charged with murdering Jessica Ridgeway, is currently housed.

"The SHU is not disciplinary," says Techmeyer, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "It is for inmates who might be at a higher risk than the general population." The SHU also has a full bed, rather than just the gurneys in the medical clinic's observation rooms, so it might have been a more comfortable place for Ken to spend the night. That is, if the bed hadn't already been occupied by another prisoner.

A deputy said he'd return with a plastic cot, but that cot never came. So Ken spent the rest of the night lying on the concrete floor, unable to sleep. The man in the bed didn't sleep much, either. "Don't die in here," he kept telling Ken. "Don't die."

While the man seemed to be struggling with psychological problems, Ken feared he might not be far from the truth. "I thought I was going to die," he says now. "I thought I wasn't going to come out of there."

When breakfast arrived at 5:30 a.m., Ken couldn't eat; his fellow prisoner consumed both meals. Finally, several hours later, Ken gathered his remaining strength and, ignoring the other inmate's claims that he'd get them both in trouble, crawled across the floor, hauled himself up and pressed his body against the cell's alarm button. When a deputy opened the door, Ken, sobbing, repeated what had become his mantra: He was having a stroke and needed to go to the hospital.

Ken was taken back to the medical clinic. A little after 9 a.m., the jailhouse doctor finally arrived. He ran Ken through his own series of neurological tests, then called the medical staff into the room and repeated the tests so that they could watch. In Ken's medical records, the doctor noted his slurred speech as well as a noticeable weakness on the right side of his body and his face — ailments Ken had been complaining about for hours but that no one else had noted. "This man obviously went through a massively traumatic experience," Ken remembers the doctor telling the nurses. "I don't know how you guys missed this."

Then he turned to Ken. "I think you are having a stroke," he said. "We will get you to the hospital."

So Ken waited to be transported to the hospital. And waited.

*********

An hour after she received the disturbing phone call from Ken on September 17, Jen got another call from the Jefferson County Detention Facility. This time, it was a correctional officer. He told her that Ken was fine, he'd just suffered an anxiety attack.

She didn't believe it. "I have had anxiety attacks," she says. "Never would they make me slur my words that bad, where it's hard to understand what the person is saying."

And when she didn't hear from Ken the next day, she knew she was right: He wasn't fine. So around 7 p.m., when she got off work from her call-center job, she went to the jail. "We transported him to the hospital earlier today," the correctional officer at the front desk told her after looking up Ken's information. "But if it was an emergency, we would have contacted you."

She couldn't get any more details.

Jen could understand why, for security reasons, the jail wouldn't disclose where an inmate was being treated offsite. But she couldn't understand why no one would tell her Ken's medical condition, especially since she was his emergency contact. "It was as if they thought if they didn't say anything, they could push it under the rug and it would be all right," she says.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner