To Die Inside

Last April, Alvin Jones got the message on his answering machine: a prison chaplain, telling him to call a certain nurse. That's how he found out that his brother Nathan had died.

The story of his death, as found in public records, would scarcely fill a paragraph: Nathan Earl Jones, 52, serving twenty years for manslaughter and narcotics. Brought to the infirmary at the Territorial Correctional Facility complaining of abdominal pains and vomiting. Taken to the ER at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City, where he arrested. Resuscitation efforts failed. Official cause of death: end-stage cirrhosis due to hepatitis C.

But there's often more than one version of a death in custody, even a natural one. For Al Jones, the story of his brother's life is a bitter tale of tragic moments and wrong turns, riddled with what-ifs and might-have-beens, and the circumstances surrounding his death present a final question mark. It's a puzzle he's still trying to solve.

"Nathan was not well," Jones says. "But the way I heard it, he didn't have to die that day."

The ravaged body brought back to Denver bore little resemblance to Al's bright, athletic older brother. The two were born thirteen months apart and had bonded fiercely at an early age after the loss of their father, a military driver, in a car crash in Georgia. They'd grown up in Park Hill, where Nathan dreamed of playing quarterback on some big-time college team. But in his teens, he began to stray into petty crime, then car theft -- and finally a bloody encounter with police one hot summer night that branded him for the rest of his life.

Saturday, June 22, 1968, was probably the closest Denver ever got to the race riots consuming larger cities in the '60s. That night, a series of skirmishes between black youths and police in Five Points and northeast Denver led to numerous arrests, as well as isolated incidents of arson, looting and vandalism. The most serious confrontation occurred when two police officers, part of the Denver Police Department's new Special Services tactical unit, attempted to disperse a crowd milling around a park and shopping center in Park Hill.

According to news reports, eighteen-year-old Nathan Jones approached the officers' car, drew a pistol and opened fire, grazing one patrolman. The officer fired back, hitting Jones in the chin and abdomen.

That isn't the way it went down, Al Jones insists. Nathan had just gotten a job at the Paramount Theatre, working security, and he was hanging out with friends, showing off his new uniform. Another teen brought a toy pistol -- a squirt gun -- and Nathan was waving it around, he says.

"I recall telling him, 'Hey, man, you don't need to be playing with that. Somebody's going to shoot you,'" Jones says. "I was on the other side of the park when the police came in an unmarked car. They saw my brother and this toy gun, and the rest was history."

The gun Nathan allegedly fired was never found, and eyewitness accounts of the shooting varied tremendously. But at trial two years later, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon; by that point, he'd been through several surgeries, pegged as a cop shooter and arrested dozens of times. Instead of becoming a college gridiron star, he went to prison in Buena Vista. "He got a bad deck of cards, and he just had to play the hand," Al Jones says. "After he got out, he hated the cops and they hated him. Back in those days, they had a black book -- and they had his mug shot in that book."

In the decades that followed, Nathan Jones worked as a janitor, joined the Sons of Darkness motorcycle club -- and descended into alcoholism and drug addiction. He drifted back to prison twice on dope charges. In 1993 he was out on bond in a cocaine case when he got into an argument with a girlfriend and struck her. She died from the blow, and Jones went back to prison for the last time.

In the DOC, he battled a series of chronic health problems, including glaucoma, which robbed him of most of his sight, and hepatitis C. His brother is convinced that Nathan acquired the virus in the early 1990s -- "I saw him showing up with these cheap tattoos," Al Jones recalls -- but never received treatment.

Nurse Joanna Trimble remembers Nathan Jones well. For seven months, Trimble worked at the Territorial infirmary, one of the principal care units for DOC inmates who are chronically or terminally ill; of all the dying prisoners she saw during that time, Jones's case is the one that continues to haunt her. She was not working the day guards brought Jones in last spring, she says, but she was later told by other staffers that the nurse on duty did little to check on his condition.

"A couple of the inmates told me that they knew Mr. Jones had been hoarding food," Trimble says. "They think he ate some tainted chicken he'd snuck out of the chow hall. He came over there sick, vomiting, with diarrhea, so weak he couldn't get out of his wheelchair. They told him just to lie on a cot and he'd be all right."

Later that morning, a physician's assistant examined Jones and ordered that he be taken to the hospital. A medical staffer argued that his case wasn't serious enough to require an ambulance, Trimble says; others disagreed. Finally, Jones was taken to the emergency room at St. Thomas More, where he died. "I do believe his death could have been prevented," Trimble says.

Dorothy Twellman, the Fremont County coroner, takes issue with Trimble's assertion. An emergency-room physician who was at St. Thomas More when Jones was brought in, Twellman says the advanced state of his cirrhosis was more than sufficient to account for his death. Twellman has probably scrutinized more inmate deaths than any other coroner in the state, and she says the natural deaths are largely the result of end-stage chronic diseases.

"We're seeing more inmates with a variety of health problems," she says. "I can't think of any offhand where I felt like they would have survived if they hadn't been in prison."

But according to Trimble, the care inmates receive can be substandard, depending on which staffers are on duty that day. Most of her colleagues are "well-informed and very conscientious," she says, but some regard their patients as less than human. "If something happens to one of them, their attitude is, 'Oh well, he's just an inmate.' And that attitude is pretty much supported by the administration."

Trimble acknowledges that some inmates try to take advantage of staffers, faking illnesses in an effort to obtain drugs. "But the fact is, if they had an inmate they didn't like, for whatever reason, they'd just let him lay," she says. "An inmate who complains of chest pain -- I don't care if he's faking or not. My job is to check his symptoms. Chest pain is something you don't mess with. It could be indigestion or it could be a heart attack."

Trimble left the DOC's employ shortly after Jones's death -- in part because of the "us versus them" mentality of some of the medical personnel. "I've been a nurse for 28 years, and I don't like cruelty in any form," she says. "It wasn't my place to judge these inmates. Frankly, I don't think the taxpayers are getting what they're paying for in there."

Prison officials decline to discuss the details of inmates' deaths, citing the confidentiality of medical records. After several weeks of letters, faxes and phone calls, Al Jones finally obtained his brother's records last week. But the documents alone can't tell him if his brother's death was unavoidable, a result of inadequate treatment -- or something that was foretold years ago, the night he did or didn't point a gun that was or wasn't real at a man who did or didn't identify himself as a police officer.

"His sentence was not supposed to be a death sentence," Jones says. "But a cop shooting never ends."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast