Forbes.com Walter Pavlo January 4, 2023
On December 12, 2022, FCI Miami Warden Samantha Serrano signed a letter to U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands (Middle District of Georgia), which stated an inmate the judge had sentenced to prison had died while in custody. The letter read “This letter is to notify you of the death of Robert Pressley …
The cause of death is pending until the final report is received from the
Pressley, 43 years old at the time of his death, was serving a 12-year prison term. Based on information from those who knew him at the prison, he was a soft spoken man who had no enemies. He did however have a number of medical issues.
In November, Pressley complained of a persistent cough that was leading to, at times, coughing up blood. While tests for Tuberculosis came back negative, he was sent outside of FCI Miami for medical treatment to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial in Miami. According to a source who is familiar with Mr. Pressley’s treatment but who did not want to be identified, doctors discovered that metal was detected in his lungs, leading to complications with his breathing. The metal seemed to be from a metal rod placed in his back from a surgery done prior to prison.
For the most part, FCI Miami, which houses 762 low security inmates, is an open campus with dormitory-style living for the inmates. Prisoners live in a
block-cubicle within an open dormitory with shared shower and toilet facilities. However, upon being discharged from the hospital, Pressley did not go back into general population but instead was placed in E-Unit, designated for quarantine because of his interaction with the hospital outside of the facility. This is a procedure developed after the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent viral contagion within the compound.
On the night of December 10, 2022, Pressley was placed in a cell with Kenbrell Armor Thompkins. Thompkins was serving a 25-month sentence on fraud
related charges. Thompkins’ fall from grace that landed him in prison came years after he was an un-drafted free agent out of the University of Cincinnati who spent three seasons playing professional football with the New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, and New York Jets.
Pressley was taken from his cell to visit health services at FCI Miami after complaining to the staff that he was having trouble breathing. Twenty-minutes after seeing someone in health services, he was returned to his cell, E01-024.
Pressley was on the lower bunk and Thompkins on the top.
There is a shortage of staff throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). As Director Colette Peters told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2022, “Despite ongoing recruitment efforts in 2022, hiring has been a challenge.” At the same hearing, Shane Fausey, National President Council of Prison Locals that represents bargaining union members in the BOP, put it in more stark terms, “It is no secret that the Bureau of Prisons is in the midst of a staffing crisis of epic proportions.” Donald Murphy Office of Public Affairs, Office of Congressional and Public Affairs BOP, provided a statement for this article that “FCI Miami continues to maintain adequate staffing to meet their mission.”
That evening, a single corrections officer (Identified as “CO”), who often is called on to work many hours of overtime, was responsible for the count of inmates in Unit-E. “Count,” as the name implies, are routine counts of prisoners to make sure that they are all accounted for and in their proper location. It also serves as a safety check on the well-being of prisoners. Like other nights, CO was the sole corrections officer responsible for both Unit-E and Unit-F. At midnight, he walked down the range of Unit-E cells, peeked into the window of the cell and counted each inmate. All was quiet as CO counted eighty-eight prisoners in Unit-E, including Pressley and Thompkins. The CO returned to Unit-F, connected by a long corridor, counted the prisoners there and returned to a small office to do paperwork until it was time for the next count.
At 3:00am, the CO started his walk down the corridor toward Unit-E and as he approached, he could hear screaming and pounding on the heavy steel door of a cell. He quickened his pace and came to the cell where Thompkins beating and screaming. The CO told Thompkins to step back so he could look into the cell through a small window. Thompkins was frantic but quickly moved away from the door allowing the CO to look into the cell where blood was spattered over all the walls, bed and ceiling. Pressley lay motionless in a pool of blood on the floor, his eyes wide open.
“He’s dead,” Thompkins screamed. “I didn’t kill him, I tried to help him! He’s been dead for over an hour!”
The CO called for backup and another corrections officer appeared after 5 minutes. Not knowing what had occurred in the cell, CO could not rule out an attack so he carefully opened the cell and Pressley was pulled by his feet into
the corridor and the cell door was then shut and locked with Thompkins still inside.
Attempts to revive Pressley were tried in desperation but it was apparent that he had been lifeless for some time. The CO, caught between this evolving emergency and his duty to count the prisoners, called to his supervisor asking, “I’m done with count and I need to know if I call in 88 or 87 inmates. Inmate Pressley is dead.”
Desperate attempts were made to call the coroner to come to the facility but nobody could get there. Pressley’s body laid in the corridor of Unit-E for five hours before it was removed. After an interview with Thompkins, he was
finally removed from the bloody cell, allowed to shower and moved to another cell. He was traumatized.
In most prisons, there is an emergency button within the locked cell for inmates to push. In Unit-E of FCI Miami there are none, nor are there cameras within Unit-E that could detect such an event. BOP’s Murphy’s provided a statement regarding emergency notification in cells stating, “ Duress alarms or buttons are not required at all locations and are not currently utilized at FCI Miami.” According to those who have talked to
Thompkins regarding the incident, Pressley started choking and woke him up at approximately 12:30am. Pressley went to the toilet and started coughing up blood and vomiting. Unable to control himself he gasped for air, clutched the bunk bed for support and went back and forth across the cell trying to breathe. He finally collapsed on the floor, moving for a bit, then he went quiet.
Thompkins, knowing that he too was in a quarantine unit, had no idea what Pressley was suffering from. He was conflicted over whether to help or how he could help. Thompkins did the only thing he could do and that was to beat on
the cell door, scream for help and hope that someone would come. The CO was the first person there, over 90 minutes after Pressley’s breathing episodes began and soon died.
“I feel for Mr. Pressley,” Gloria Thompkins, Thompkins’ mother, said in an interview, “but I have been unable to talk to Kenbrell and my thought is that what he witnessed was unimaginable. Gloria knows little about the incident, only bits of information she has been able to get from a network of families who have loved ones there. “I have not talked to him in weeks and I’ve called the prison but nobody will tell me what is going on,” Gloria said, “He is going to need counseling or something. I just cannot imagine what he saw.”
Kareen Troitino, the local corrections officer union president, said of the
incident, “As a cost savings initiative, the Agency is jeopardizing lives by forcing one officer to supervise two buildings housing inmates. This loss of life would have never happened if we had one officer in each building as we had in the past.”