KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Missouri families of incarcerated individuals want what most people would want: to know that their loved one is healthy and safe.
Yet, when an inmate dies, some families struggle to figure out how, when, why, or even where their loved one died, leaving families across the state grieving, restless, and begging for answers.
It wasn’t until Problem Solvers got involved that several families learned the heartbreaking truth about how their loved one passed away while serving their sentence.
“It’s pretty bad,” said Teresa Capraro, whose former husband, Michael Capraro, died nearly five years ago. “I can’t find closure to it because it just doesn’t seem like he should be dead.”
Capraro said she was not contacted by the prison or the Missouri Department of Corrections when Michael died. Instead, she found out one day when she called the prison herself, hoping to speak with him.
“I got the central office number and I called and I talked to the lady there and she said, ‘He passed,’ and I said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘Yes, he passed,’ and I said, ‘Well what happened to him?’” Capraro said. “She said, ‘I can’t give you that information.’ I said, ‘Where’s his stuff? Where’s he buried?’”
“(They) couldn’t tell me nothing.”
Eventually, she said she was informed Michael had died in October 2018. However, she said she’s never seen his body, nor received an autopsy report or any other information about his death, despite numerous requests.
He had no other living relatives.
“Was he cremated?” Capraro said. “I mean, I don’t know.”
Unfortunately, situations like Capraro’s are not unusual.
Dasha Goode Simpson, whose uncle, 44-year-old Damon Simpson, died in January, said she spoke to him just a week before his death.
She said she still doesn’t know how her uncle died, and no one at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, where he was incarcerated, will tell her.
“We just want to know what happened to my uncle,” she said.
Even her uncle’s brother and closest living relative, Gerrel Simpson, can’t get answers.
“I mean, it just goes to show that no matter what he did, he still had loved ones and, like I said, anybody family member’s go through this stuff, no matter what charge they go through, no matter what they did, you still have the right to know what happened to them and to give them a proper burial,” Gerrel said.
Juanita Mason is another Missouri resident waiting for answers.
After her husband, Jerry Mason, died at the Western Missouri Correctional Facility this past Christmas, she said she received a box of his belongings from his cell, but still knows nothing about how he died.
“We had spoken to him at 9:35 Christmas night and when they called me at 1 a.m., they told me that they found him unresponsive at 10:06,” she said.
Every time she calls the corrections department or prison, she says she receives the same response: “‘Oh, we can’t tell you anything. It’s under investigation.’
“Basically, they said, ‘We can’t give you any information because this is all under investigation,’” she said. “I said, ‘I’d like to know how he was laying in the cell when you found him, what he was wearing and, you know, what was around him.”
“I need any kind of information to hold onto.’”
But Mason said she’s been met with silence.
Lori Curry, executive director of Missouri Prison Reform, said she is regularly contacted by families frustrated that they are being kept in the dark about their loved ones’ death behind bars.
“It’s the person’s loved one,” she said. “Why can’t they find out how their loved one died?”
She said there is a lot of mistrust between the corrections department and incarcerated individuals’ families, which results in the perception that the state is hiding something.
“You wonder if the reason given for someone passing away is the truth,” she said. “You just wonder why they are refusing to give information.”
Civil rights attorney Jim Bruce said families have the right to know, but prisons have a lot to hide, especially when it’s the prison who conducts the death investigation.
“You never want to have a criminal investigate a crime,” he said.
Sam Wendt, personal injury attorney and owner of Wendt Law Firm, said families trying to request information related to their loved ones’ death often face a “paperwork nightmare.”
“Making the request for this information, there are websites dedicated to the process and way in which you make the request, but often there are materials you receive that, again, are heavily redacted or are incomplete in some way,” Wendt said.
Problem Solvers wanted to help some of these families get answers.
Under Missouri law, an autopsy report is an open record, so Problem Solvers requested the autospies of all three men: Michael Capraro, Damon Simpson and Jerry Mason. What we learned exposes the ugly underbelly of what goes on behind bars.
“We are all human beings,” Wendt said. “People make mistakes from time to time, bad mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they are beyond being redeemed.”
Digging for details
Michael Capraro’s autopsy report reveals he didn’t die in the Western Missouri Correctional Center, as previously disclosed to Teresa, but was killed by another inmate at the Boonville Correctional Center. His ex-wife said she didn’t even know they had transferred him to a different institution, nor was she told that he died by homicide.
“It’s real upsetting to know I’ll never see him again,” she said.
The Department of Corrections told Problem Solvers that Michael’s attacker was later convicted of manslaughter, and documents showed Capraro’s cremains were given to a Catholic church in Booneville, information that could have been shared with Teresa. However, the church told the prison it would keep this information private.
“It’s like they are hiding from me or something,” Capraro said.
Jerry Mason’s autopsy shows he died of a fentanyl overdose, something his wife was shocked to discover.
She wants to know how that is even possible.
“He was supposed to be in a secure atmosphere,” Juanita said. “He was supposed to be monitored.”
Problem Solvers has yet to receive Damon Simpson’s autopsy because his death is still under investigation. However, the prison gave his cremains to a woman listed as his emergency contact – a woman the family has never met.
She told Problem Solvers she was Damon Simpson’s girlfriend, although she couldn’t remember exactly how long they’d been together.
“Now, if that was on him (Damon) to give this female all this power over him and to isolate his family, so be it,” Gerrel, his brother, said. “Me and my family want answers and we deserve answers.”
For other families, an autopsy is just the beginning of their search for truth.
Wanda Parker’s son, Deilo Rogers, 31, died at the Farmington Correctional Center last summer, where a medical examiner determined his death was caused by a drug overdose. Parker demanded to see her son’s body, discovering signs of bodily injury and trauma.
“When I viewed my son’s body, he had two black eyes,” she said. “He had bruising on his forehead and also on the side of his neck and so, um, it didn’t look like a drug overdose.”
She said she paid for a second private autopsy, and the results were alarmingly different.
“There wasn’t enough drugs in his system,” Parker said. “It was asphyxiation and that he was assaulted prior to passing away.”
She contacted the prison to tell them, but said nobody seemed to care.
“I deserve answers,” she said. “I feel like I’m getting nowhere with them.”
This pushed Parker to hire an attorney, as well as enlisting the help of State Rep. Kimberly Ann-Collins, whose own father died in prison.
Collins said she knows exactly how difficult it can be to get answers from the Missouri prison system, where both overdoses and deaths are on the rise.
“They find all kinds of excuses,” Collins said.
Collins introduced legislation, House Bill 1922, to create a bipartisan commission to oversee the DOC and its investigations.
“There is just too much in the DOC that is not getting enough attention,” she said.
Collins’ bill didn’t even get heard in committee until April, meaning chances of it passing the legislature are slim unless she’s able to tack it on as an amendment to another piece of legislation.
Meanwhile, families like the Simpsons keep waiting and hoping for answers.
“What happened?” Gerrel said. “That’s what I want to know.”
“That’s what she (Dasha) wants to know. Everybody deserves to know.”
The Department of Corrections said the death rate in prison is far lower than outside of prison, and insists it is not hiding information, but making sure investigations are completed before releasing information.
The department also said families having trouble getting answers should contact the Office of Constituent Services.
“I just feel like they expected us just to let it go, seeing as how he was in jail and why he was in jail, and that’s just not the case,” Dasha said. “Everyone still loves their loved ones who’s in jail, you know, and I just don’t feel like it was right that they couldn’t just at least tell us something or communicate with us something.”