Nessel Charges Upper Peninsula Prison Staff in Inmate’s Death

By Kyle Kaminski

June 21, 2023

MICHIGAN—Eight current and former prison employees were charged Tuesday in the death of an inmate who lost 50 pounds over two weeks and died of dehydration while being restrained in 2019.

The death of Jonathan Lancaster at the Alger prison in the Upper Peninsula was a “preventable tragedy that played out over days” under the supervision of prison staff, Attorney General Dana Nessel said.

“These are serious, and numerous, charges that reflect the broad culpability the defendants shoulder,” she said in a statement. “The eight defendants had a responsibility for the care and well-being of those in their custody, and my office will continue to rigorously pursue accountability when that is not met.”

Two prison officials at the time, Scott Sprader and Benny Mercier, and four nurses who tended to Lancaster in his final days were charged with involuntary manslaughter, following an investigation by state police. Two prison officers face charges of misconduct.

Lancaster, 38, was in prison for robbery and gun crimes in the Detroit area. He had a history of mental illness and showed symptoms while at Alger, including paranoia, anxiety, loss of appetite and insomnia, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his sister.

Prosecutors allege that Lancaster stopped eating and drinking while in prison, and was placed in an observation cell in restraints, where he remained restrained in a special cell for three days until his death.

He “received no emergency medical attention until after his death,” despite excessive weight loss and the prison’s knowledge that he was deteriorating, Nessel said in a statement.

Lancaster’s family reached a $2.6 million settlement in 2021 after suing prison health staff and private contractors. Hannah Fielstra, an attorney who represented the family, welcomed the criminal charges.

“The official cause of death was severe dehydration,” Fielstra told AP. “I do believe these state actors need to be held accountable. He continually asked for medical treatment. We had alleged that prison officials ignored these requests and portrayed him as manipulative and attention-seeking.”

Six people were fired and several more were disciplined after Lancaster’s death, officials said.

Former Acting Warden Scott Sprader and former Assistant Deputy Warden Benny Mercier, along with the four former Michigan Department of Corrections nurses charged this week, could each face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Former Sgt. Jason Denmen and Officer Shawn Brinkman’s felony misconduct in office charges carry a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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