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What happened to Kelly-Jo?
It took John Geoghan’s murder to get people to take notice of another prison death that took place a whole month earlier

HOW DID Kelly-Jo Griffen die? It’s a question that haunts her family and friends, who have made up T-shirts featuring Kelly-Jo’s smiling face with the caption WHAT HAPPENED TO KELLY-JO? It’s also a question that has aroused the suspicions of prisoner-rights advocacy groups like Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services (MCLS) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). When Carol Rose, the executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, heard the story of Kelly-Jo, she was outraged. "It sounded as though a grave injustice had been done, and I wanted more facts," she says. But even today, nearly seven weeks after Kelly-Jo perished in a prison cell, the details of her death remain, in Rose’s words, "sketchy."

The only people who can tell us how Kelly-Jo Griffen came to die while detained at MCI-Framingham work for the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC). But they’re not talking — at least, not in any substantive way. Maybe DOC officials know what happened to Kelly-Jo. Maybe they don’t. Either way, the department is the only state entity in a position to find out. Yet it has refused to launch an investigation into circumstances surrounding the prison death. So the effect, in the end, is the same: the DOC appears to be living up to its long-held practice of sweeping suspicious matters under the rug.

At the time of her demise, Kelly-Jo was a 24-year-old Lynn resident being detained at MCI-Framingham for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, given that the mother of three young children had been merely charged with two criminal offenses — "leaving the scene of property damage" and "unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle." She had not yet been tried, much less convicted. Prison officials told the Griffen family that she died of injuries sustained when she fell while getting ready to leave for court. Photos of Kelly-Jo’s body at the Solimine, Landergan & Rhodes funeral home, in Lynn, taken by her family, show dark-purple bruises on her forehead and around her left eye. Her left cheek is swollen. There’s an inch-wide cut on the top of her head, around which her long, brown hair looks matted, as if tied in dozens of knots. In other words, they look like injuries unlikely to have resulted from a simple fall. Prison officials say Kelly-Jo, who was suffering from a heroin addiction, was attended closely by medical staff during her brief stay at MCI-Framingham. Current and former inmates say they saw and heard Kelly-Jo utter persistent, desperate cries for help, which went unanswered.

That shouldn't come as a big surprise, given the public’s apparent lack of interest in prison conditions, where the ethic of former governor William Weld’s promise to introduce inmates to the "joys of busting rocks" prevails. Indeed, Kelly-Jo died a full month before defrocked Boston priest John Geoghan was murdered while incarcerated. Yet prior to Geoghan’s death, the media showed little interest in how she came to die while in the custody of the DOC. According to Kelly-Jo’s great-aunt Karen Scovil, who distributed press releases to newspapers and television stations about her niece’s mysterious demise, the Boston Phoenix, the Lynn Daily Item, Kelly-Jo’s hometown paper, and the MetroWest Daily News, in Framingham, were the only news outlets investigating her death behind the wall. Since Geoghan’s murder, however, the Boston Herald published an August 28 op-ed penned by the ACLU’s Rose, in which she calls for independent oversight of the state’s prison system. And Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara weighed in with a piece September 7 comparing Kelly-Jo’s death with Geoghan’s.

Regardless of how attention was drawn to the way Kelly-Jo died, it’s clear that her story raises serious questions about how the DOC treats those in its care. In many ways, her story seems more disturbing than Geoghan’s because, without the heightened interest in DOC policies brought about by his murder, very few people cared to find out what had happened to Kelly-Jo. What does it say about our culture that the story of a woman awaiting arraignment on minor charges who perishes mysteriously while in DOC custody — that is, under the care of the state and by way of public dollars — doesn’t rate on the scale of daily outrages?

FAMILY AND friends describe Kelly-Jo as a kind-hearted, caring mother struggling to kick a long-time heroin addiction and to get back on her feet. Over the years, Kelly-Jo had bounced in and out of drug-treatment programs; she also fed her habit in ways that got her in trouble with the law. Indeed, her addiction may have played a role in her last brush with the criminal-justice system. On June 26, around noon, Kelly-Jo and a male companion were driving in Lynn when their vehicle "swerved onto a lawn, over the curb, struck a fence, and then struck the tree," according to a report issued by the Lynn Police Department. When officers arrived on the scene, they spotted two people fleeing. One of them was Kelly-Jo, who, according to the police report, admitted that she had been driving the car, "but got scared after the accident." She was arrested and charged with two criminal offenses — "leaving the scene of property damage," and "unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle."

On June 27, Kelly-Jo was scheduled to appear in Lynn District Court for arraignment on the two motor-vehicle charges. She didn’t show, according to court records, and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Nearly a month later, on July 20, Lynn police arrested Kelly-Jo at her mother’s home. The next day, Kelly-Jo’s mother showed up at court to pick up her daughter. But by the time her mother arrived, Kelly-Jo had already appeared before First Justice Joseph Dever. According to court records, the judge arraigned Kelly-Jo on the charges pending against her, and continued the proceedings until August 25. Though the records show that Dever released Kelly-Jo on "PR," or personal recognizance, he also called for a "special mitt" — or mittimus, a writ of commitment — to take Kelly-Jo into custody and transport her to Salem District Court, where there were two warrants for her arrest on charges of "possession of a hypodermic needle" and "unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle." Yet Kelly-Jo never made it to Salem Court. Instead, she spent hours in a holding cell at the Lynn courthouse; eventually, she was sent to MCI-Framingham. By then, some 10 hours later, she was deep in the throes of heroin withdrawal. She was placed in the facility’s health-services unit to undergo detox; after a prison doctor signed off on her health, she was to be transported to the Salem Court. But 36 hours after entering the maximum-security prison, Kelly-Jo was dead.

Kelly-Jo’s sudden death has left her mother, Michele Griffen, distraught — and confused. During a recent interview at her aunt’s home, the Lynn resident, 45, sits on her knees, rocking back and forth, flipping through photographs of her eldest daughter — at age two, hugging a stuffed animal; at three, getting a haircut; at five, going to school. Throughout the modest apartment are posters that read FOR OUR ANGEL KELLY-JO and BIG SIS — EVERYDAY I MISS YOU. Michele Griffen wears one of the T-shirts the family has made bearing a photo of her smiling daughter. As she remembers moments from her child’s life, her eyes well up with tears, her voice cracks. She says, "I still cannot deal with the fact that my Kelly-Jo is gone."

It is wrenching to listen to Griffen recount her last moments with her daughter — that July morning when Lynn officers arrested her on the outstanding traffic warrant. She and her daughter had just packed the car for a trip to the beach when two officers approached. They produced a warrant for Kelly-Jo, who, as her mother recalls, pleaded with the cops to let her go." She said, ‘Please, I’ll clear up the matter,’" recalls Griffen, who says her child "was freaking out" because she’d planned to enroll in a drug-detoxification-and-rehabilitation program the next morning.

By nightfall, when Kelly-Jo still hadn’t returned home from Lynn police headquarters, Griffen became deeply concerned about her daughter’s well-being. She knew Kelly-Jo would, at this point, be "dope sick." Her daughter hadn’t had any heroin in 24 hours; if she’d been at home she would have taken some of the drug to manage the physical symptoms of withdrawal — the violent shakes, the searing body aches, the overwhelming nausea. Needing to do something, anything, to help her child, on the night of July 20 Griffen brought Kelly-Jo a care package and left it at the Lynn station: jeans, a sweatshirt, socks, and a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

The next day, Griffen went to Lynn Court to get Kelly-Jo. When she realized that her daughter had been taken into custody for the Salem warrants, she went to Salem Court to fetch her. By 5:30 that afternoon, she was finally told that her daughter had been sent to MCI-Framingham for the evening, and that Kelly-Jo would be brought back to Salem Court the following morning. One Lynn court officer even relayed a message from Kelly-Jo to Michele Griffen: "She said to me, ‘Mommy, take care of my kids. Please be in court tomorrow.’"

Meanwhile, over the course of the next 36 hours, Griffen called the women’s prison and spoke with several guards, whom she warned about her daughter’s condition. "I told them that Kelly-Jo was detoxing by default," she says. Not only that, but she explained that Kelly-Jo had a history of kidney infection and high blood pressure. She urged the guards to send Kelly-Jo to a hospital. On Tuesday, after checking up on her daughter once again, Griffen says she was reassured that the prison’s medical staff would "take good care" of Kelly-Jo.


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Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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