A former inmate is seeking justice for a 75-year-old homeless man who died late last year in a New Jersey jail while strapped in a “turtle suit” and left lying in his own filth.
And he claims that authorities have threatened his physical safety and his freedom for speaking out.
Sean Turzanski was jailed Dec. 9 to await trial on a robbery charge and two counts of shoplifting after he was accused of stealing two televisions and shoving a security guard who confronted him.
About two weeks later, the 29-year-old was placed in the segregated unit of the Burlington County Jail for fighting with another inmate.
That’s where he first encountered Robert Taylor, an alcoholic homeless man with known mental health issues who was placed in the segregated unit following a citation for disorderly conduct and then failing to appear in court on that charge.
Corrections officers guided the frail Taylor into his own cell, laid him on the concrete floor in a thick, sleeveless anti-suicide smock, and left him there for five days as he defecated and urinated on himself, too weak to eat or take medications offered to him, Turzanski said.
Taylor died five days later, on Dec. 30, of what investigators later ruled to be natural causes.
“You put someone 75 years old going through detox on a freezing cold floor, and naturally they’re going to die,” Turzanski told The Raw Story.
Turzanski said he begged corrections officers to help the older man. At least one of the officers sought help for the ill inmate and even brought the man’s food tray inside his cell, in apparent violation of jail guidelines, but Taylor never touched any of the 15 meals he was served.
But the other officers – and even the nurses who distributed medications – mocked Taylor as he lay “rotting” away, as Turzanski described it.
“The stench was so bad that officers in general population, about 30 feet away and through three doors, were asking what the hell was going on,” he said. “I wouldn’t put an animal in those conditions, let alone a human being.”
His account was backed by a 10-year jail employee who spoke to The Trentionian and in letters written from jail by Jerome Iozzia – the same inmate who Turzanski had fought with, landing them both in segregation.
The 50-year-old Iozzia died Feb. 25 from what coroners ruled a combination of pneumonia, empyema, and sepsis, with a four-day interval between onset and death.
But Iozzia, who was arrested in September on heroin and cocaine possession charges, complained in letters to his girlfriend in December that jail medical personnel had not properly administered his medications or adjusted his pacemaker. He made similar complaints in a Jan. 25 letter.
Turzanski said both Taylor and Iozzia were victims of the woeful medical care inside the jail.
“This is just a county jail — you could be in there for domestic violence for fighting with your wife or a DUI or just waiting for your trial and don’t have the money to get bailed out,” he said. “You could be innocent.”
Hospitalizing Taylor would have taken up too much time, money, and manpower, the jail employee told the newspaper, because two officers would have been required to transport him and another corrections officer would have been needed to watch over him there.
Officers are also required to watch over inmates who are treated at the clinic in Burlington County Jail, so Taylor was not taken there, either.
But Turzanski said corrections officers understood Taylor needed help because they checked on him every 15 minutes, even as they mocked his condition and suggested he might be better off dead.
“Am I saying they went in there and directly murdered him? No,” he said. “But I firmly believe this could have been prevented if he was in a hospital setting.”
Turzanski was returned to the general population for several days shortly after Taylor died, and he began documenting what he’d seen, heard, and smelled in letters he gave to other inmates to mail outside the jail.
But then he was returned to the segregated unit – and placed in Taylor’s old cell, which had been cleaned up but still reeked of human excrement.
“They can wipe up all the waste, but that man suffered for five days,” Turzanski said. “He cried for help.”
He was eventually allowed to return to general population, where he began writing a six-page letter that was carried out of jail by fellow inmate and cannabis activist Ed Forchion – known as NJ Weedman – who posted the document on Facebook and shared a copy with the FBI.
After the letter went viral on social media, Warden Lawrence Artis tried to start a fight with Turzanski in a recreation room – an encounter confirmed by the jail source.
He was thrown back into the segregated unit because of that “direct conflict” with the warden – who does not generally circulate throughout the jail with inmates — and the jail employee said officers were rumored to be looking for an inmate wiling to assault Turzanski.
“I was placed in a dungeon for over a month by writing this letter,” he said.
During a court date, Turzanski told his father he feared for his life, and his father managed to post $50,000 bail – the full amount imposed by the court, rather than the standard 10-percent bond – on March 5.
“Bail is supposed to be used to ensure you go to court, not supposed to be used against you,” Turzanski said.
Until that point, his attorney had been left with the impression that Turzanski would not be sentenced to additional jail time beyond the time he served while awaiting trial.
But prosecutors offered him a deal during his court date last week that would have required him to serve at least 90 more days in jail and up to three years.
“It was a worse-off deal,” Turzanski said. “They basically backed me into a corner.”
He’s preparing legal action against the Burlington County Jail and prosecutor’s office, which has cleared the jail of wrongdoing in Taylor’s death.
Turzanski does not yet have a trial date, but he said his robbery charge has been reduced, and his attorney believes he may yet avoid additional jail time, even if he’s convicted.
But still, he does not regret speaking out on behalf of Taylor.
“I felt personally obligated upon seeing him in the condition he was in, he couldn’t speak up, and it was my duty to do so,” Turzanski said. “I was always taught growing up to carry a voice for those who don’t have one – the weak, the mentally ill, the sick. I have to stand up for what’s right.”
Watch this video about the case posted online by WeAreChange:
[Image: The prisoner worries about a criminal conduct being behind a lattice via Shutterstock]