Ward County, ND — On average in the United States, roughly a dozen inmates die every day. Many of these human beings have never been convicted of a crime and were merely awaiting trial. Their causes of death range from being boiled to death to being severely dehydrated or choked and crushed to death. Dustin Irwin, 25, is one of those deaths.
After having been arrested by a Ward County Deputy on charges of driving under suspicion, Irwin was booked into the Ward County Jail where, days later, he would die a horrid death. His death the became the subject of a North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOC) investigation.
Dashcam video of the arrest, obtained by the Minot Daily News, showed that Irwin was calm and courteous during the traffic stop.
However, after being booked into jail, Irwin became gravely ill. Just 12 hours after being booked, Irwin submitted a written request to go to the hospital.
Irwin wrote, “Please I’m really sick and need to see someone at the hospital. Please help me see someone.”
He knew something was very wrong. But deputies didn’t believe him. The on-duty sergeant at the jail thought Irwin was detoxing so he simply moved him to a different cell instead of seeking medical help.
It is important to note that inmates often fake being sick. However, the disturbing events that unfolded in Irwin’s cell over the next 48 hours were far beyond the realm of faking an illness.
Video from the cell shows Irwin vomiting, defecating, flailing, and in a constant state of torment for hours on end. The constant distress eventually caused Irwin to become unresponsive, so his cellmate pressed the emergency button in the cell.
A deputy came into the cell — not a doctor — rolled back Irwin’s eyelids and administered a sternum rub. A sternum rub is a means of testing if a person is faking an unconscious state by using one’s knuckles to inflict a significant amount of pain to that person’s sternum. Irwin barely responded.
Dr. John J. Hagan, a board certified internist in Bismarck, concluded, according to the Minot Daily News, that “a properly trained correctional officer should have been able to recognize that Irwin should receive medical attention” and that “had he been evaluated at this point, he would likely have received a short course of IV fluids in the emergency room and would have been returned to the jail.” Hagan’s opinion noted that “regardless of medical training or corrections training” a reasonable individual would conclude Irwin was seriously ill and that “he required immediate medical attention.”
However, the deputies did not reach this conclusion and they left him in the cell once again.
Day 3. By this point, Irwin has become delirious and is unable to do anything but vomit and shake. Officers finally respond but not to get him medical help. Irwin was simply being exchanged for another inmate.
The disturbing video shows that Irwin was entirely unresponsive at this point. However, deputies loaded him up and prepared him for the exchange. The seat in the transport vehicle had to be covered in plastic because Irwin had been urinating and vomiting on himself for days.
According to MDN, Irwin could only “be described as very seriously ill,” wrote Dr. Hagan, after viewing video of Irwin being prepared for transport at the Ward County Jail. “He was hallucinating, incoherent, unable to follow simple instructions or to walk without assistance. A disinterested bystander would recognize that Irwin was gravely ill. Immediate treatment offered reasonable hope of survival even at this juncture. His best opportunity for survival and recovery was lost when the transport driver chose not to turn left into the emergency room entrance to Trinity upon leaving the jail.”
Again, the deputies ignored him.
Not until Irwin was brought to the inmate exchange in Coleharbor did any of the deputies who viewed this seriously ill man say a single word.
Burleigh County Deputy Jennifer Heinert was the first person to show an ounce of humanity and notice that something was very wrong. Heinert told the DOC investigator that “as soon as she observed Irwin, she knew his condition was a medical condition” and that her immediate reaction was “to get Irwin to a hospital.”
By the time Irwin made it to the hospital, his condition had deteriorated that much more. He was then airlifted to Sanford Health in Fargo but went into ventricular fibrillation during the flight and died. He was returned to Bismarck where he was pronounced dead.
Dr. Hagan concluded in his report noting that “With reasonable medical certainty, I conclude that Dustin Irwin’s death was caused by profound dehydration. The combination of delirium accompanied by increased agitation is called excited delirium. Without appropriate medical intervention, this sequence of events will lead to death. Deputy Heinert appears to be the only individual who made the correct assessment and took prompt and appropriate action in this matter.”
The DOC investigation went further, concluding that “it is evident that those incarcerated at the Ward County Jail were not being properly supervised.” The DOC’s issued an Order of Non-Compliance to the Ward County Jail, calling Irwin’s treatment “grossly inadequate” and noting that “Every level of command within the Ward County Sheriff’s office failed to provide adequate care to inmate Dustin Irwin.”
Charges were eventually filed against Capt. Mike Nason and Sheriff Steve Kukowski. However, they were almost immediately dropped. For the gross negligence and dereliction leading to the horrific suffering and death of another human being, no one was held liable. Instead, Kukowski convinced the Ward County Commissioners to pay him a $75,000 settlement.