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On December 30, 2013, a man named Robert Taylor died on the floor of his Burlington New County Jail cell in a puddle of his own urine and feces.
If you follow New Jersey news, you’ve probably heard about Taylor’s death – and if you don’t follow New Jersey news, the upcoming documentary Those Who Fight will explore the alleged human rights violations surrounding the Taylor case.
According to news reports, the story goes like this:
Taylor’s fellow inmate, Sean Turzanski, was being held in Burlington County Jail’s segregation (solitary confinement) unit in late December. Turzanski saw Taylor being led into a nearby cell. For five days, 75-year-old Taylor remained two cells away from Turzanski, lying on the cold concrete floor, naked save for a “turtle suit” smock used for suicidal inmates. For five days, according to Turzanski, Taylor didn’t rise to eat, drink, shower, or use the toilet. On the fifth day, Taylor died.
Turzanski wrote a 6-page letter about what he’d witnessed, which he passed along to fellow inmate Ed Forchion in hopes of getting the story to the media, and informing the public of the gross violation of human rights within the jailhouse walls. In the letter, Turzanski describes his pleas to guards to get medical attention for Taylor, to no avail. He also describes the overpowering stench coming from the cell of Taylor as he lay dying; the guards, Turzanzki says, responded by spraying Lysol in the cell and on Taylor.
Forchion brought the story to local media, and news reports spurred an investigation. Burlington County Prosecutors reported to the media that Taylor died of “natural causes” and found no violations that warranted further investigation. Neither Taylor’s autopsy nor the full investigation report have been made available to the public.
Turzanski and filmmaker Ford Fischer are continuing to fight for justice in the Taylor case.
While Taylor’s death has received a fair amount of local media attention, Fischer hopes that Those Who Fight, the feature-length documentary he is creating with co-producer Trey Yingst, will help draw national attention to the case and to the egregious human rights violations committed by the Burlington County Jail.
In the documentary’s trailer, Burlington County Information Officer Eric Arpert states on camera that Robert Taylor was lying on the floor of his cell in the days before his death not because he was physically ill, but because it was how he preferred to live as a person who was homeless.
“The government response to his death indicates that it didn’t matter to them because he was homeless,” says Fischer. “They seem to think that it didn’t matter because he was an alcoholic. The problem is that those things shouldn’t matter. Any human life that you have custody over by having a person confined in your jail, you have to treat with the same respect of all others, and reasonably do what you can to make sure that person is afforded their human rights, most critically the right to be alive.”
According to an unnamed Burlington County Jail Corrections Officer Fischer has interviewed, there have been 15 deaths in the Burlington County Jail over the past 10 years, a number that is alarming considering the short average duration of inmate incarcerations and the fact that the facility only houses a maximum of 400 inmates.
“This isn’t just about the death of one specific person,” explains Fischer. “It’s about the fact that this is an ongoing issue.”
Fischer, currently an undergrad student at American University in DC, is working to raise funds to complete and promote the documentary through Kickstarter crowdfunding. The fundraising goal – $2,500 – will be used “directly to get the story out there,” according to Fischer. “We don’t expect any financial gain from this. We’re just doing this because we believe in it.”
Fischer believes that drawing national attention to the case could help to reform policies not just at the Burlington County Jail but at correctional facilities throughout the country.
“If the jail is not held accountable, it has no real incentive to change any kind of policy, to change the way it deals with issues of mental and physical health for inmates,” says Fischer. “It will continue if it goes unchecked. This isn’t just about the memory of Robert Taylor and justice for him – it’s about the justice for whoever dies next.”