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Mother wants investigation into daughter’s suicide at Vandalia prison

Posted on Wednesday, June 2, 2021 at 7:51 pm

Photo courtesy of Dawn Berry

Mother upset about poor communication from prison officials concerning her daughter’s suicide

By Stan Schwartz and Barry Dalton

VANDALIA—Dawn Berry had been trying to reach her daughter, Brittany Berry, for more than 30 days, when she received notification May 26 from the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center that her daughter was dead.

Brittany, 32, had been serving a “120-day sentence for one count of possession of controlled substance from Lawrence County,” the prison stated in a news release about her death. She had been in the system since April 9, 2021.

Stunned by the news of her daughter’s death, Dawn sought answers from prison officials about what had happened. But instead of answers, she ran head first into a bureaucratic nightmare.

She was stressed trying to arrange Brittany’s funeral and taking care of her daughter’s two children, all the while attempting to find out why she could not reach Brittany for days and how she ended up dead while in custody.

All prisons have protocols for releasing information, especially when it concerns an inmate’s death. The Vandalia Leader reached out to Missouri’s Department of Corrections by phone and email seeking information on what prison facilities can and cannot release to the public and to an inmate’s family or guardian, but the DOC had not responded by press time.

Dawn said she had set up an account to send Brittany money and messages while she was incarcerated, but did not hear anything from her. Dawn had her other daughter, Emily, set up an account to also send money and messages. According to Dawn, Emily did not hear from Brittany either.

Dawn did say she had been in contact with another inmate at the facility, who told her “she (had) seen my daughter the day before she died and she was going to the nurse to self-declare herself; for what, I don’t know.”

The last time Dawn had tried to reach Brittany by phone was May 19, she said. At that time, she talked with someone at the prison when trying to make contact with Brittany.

“They (said Brittany) just got out of isolation and was on the treatment unit. I told them we have not heard from her, and was worried. I asked if they could get her a message directly, since all that I tried was not working. They said no.”

After Brittany’s death, Dawn attempted to get her daughter’s medical records to learn more about what treatment she had been receiving from the prison.

What she received from Christie Dorton in DOC’s medical records division was a note saying that medical records were “confidential and privileged,” and that “protection survives even after a patient dies.”

However, some records, Dorton wrote, could be inspected at the discretion of the medical department “if it is in the best interest of the patient.” But with the records protection still in place and no override, they could not release the records just then.

Dorton told Dawn that she would have to be declared Brittany’s legally authorized representative in order to gain access to those records. The court would then forward the documentation to DOC’s legal counsel for review to determine if the medial records could be released.

In a phone call from the prison, Dawn said she was told Brittany committed suicide. She learned there was a note from her daughter, but it was being held as evidence in the investigation. WERDCC noted an autopsy was planned in its release to the media.

In addition to the Office of Professional Standards looking into Brittany’s death, the Audrain County Sherriff’s Office has opened an investigation, Dawn said.

Dawn also noted that she contacted an attorney to see about obtaining the records pertaining to Brittany’s treatment and death.

“I’m just so devastated by all of this,” Dawn said.

Even though Brittany had had her problems with the law and faced her own personal issues with drugs, Dawn said her daughter was a beautiful person, “inside and out.”