Georgia Man Begged for Medical Care for Months Before Dying in Jail, Report Finds
An official investigation released this week concluded that “medical neglect” contributed to Alan Willison’s death at the Clayton County Jail in January, just a week after his cancer dianosis.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Apr 12, 2023
A 32-year-old man detained at Georgia’s Clayton County Jail begged for medical help for nearly two months before succumbing to testicular cancer in January, according to an investigation by the county medical examiner’s office released this week. The Clayton County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that “medical neglect” by jail staff ultimately contributed to the man’s death.
Alan Willison had been locked up at the scandal-plagued jail since October on a third-degree forgery charge. In November, he began complaining of severe pain and swelling in one of his testicles, but the jail’s medical providers gave him only over-the-counter medication to manage his pain.
“NEED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL,” Willison wrote in a Nov. 23 request for medical care, which The Appeal obtained. “I HAVE MAJOR PAIN AND SOMETHING WRONG WITH PRIVATE PARTS.” In early December, Willison received testing indicating that he likely had cancer, but it was not until Jan. 19 that he saw a urologist, who officially diagnosed him. He died a week later, on Jan. 26.
In his report, Brian Byars, director of the Clayton County Medical Examiner’s Office, determined that Willison had died of testicular cancer complicated by medical neglect. The investigation also found that unhygienic living conditions at the jail, as well as malnourishment and physical abuse Willison suffered while incarcerated had contributed to his death.
The Appeal shared the documents with Willison’s mother, Tracie Emerson.
“I actually broke down and cried earlier,” she told The Appeal. “Just saddening to see that my son really truly did suffer as much as he did and nobody cared.”
The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), which runs the jail, had initially stonewalled the medical examiner’s official investigation into Willison’s death. After the CCSO failed to comply with three subpoenas, the medical examiner’s office filed a petition in February asking the Superior Court of Clayton County to intervene. The sheriff’s office turned over the requested documents before the court took action. The CCSO did not respond to a request for comment on the medical examiner’s office’s findings by publication.
The medical examiner’s investigation contains horrifying details of the last months of Willison’s life, which appear to support complaints he shared with his mother about the jail’s refusal to provide him with care.
In a Dec. 5 email, Willison told Emerson that his left testicle was the size of his palm and “hard as a rock.” It felt like his organs were “shutting down.” A week later, Willison wrote that he was “in excruciating pain” but couldn’t put any medical requests because he had exceeded the maximum amount allowed.
“I feel like I’m dying and Clayton County jail taking there [sic] sweet time,” Willison wrote on Dec. 30.
At the same time, Willison was frantically pleading for medical attention. He sent 11 different messages to the jail’s medical staff between Nov. 23 and Jan. 17. He wrote that his left testicle was the size of a “couple golf balls,” and the pain kept him from sleeping, but he was only provided “Tylenol type medication,” according to Byars’s investigation.
“Something must be very wrong if I’m in excruciating pain everyday,” he wrote on Dec. 5. “I’m sorry but something is wrong.”
In his last message to staff, on Jan. 17, Willison wrote: “I need to go to the emergency room. I have sharp pain on my right side and stomach and I can’t take a full breath. I’m having a hard time with walking.”
A medical staffer responded by telling him, “you will be evaluated … to night [sic].”
Willison died just over a week later.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to him,” Emerson told The Appeal. She only learned that he’d been diagnosed with cancer after his death.
“I just wish I could tell my son I’m sorry,” she said. “I think that’s what really bothers me. I didn’t get to say I love you and I’m sorry.”
When asked what she wanted to apologize for, Emerson said, her voice breaking, “I couldn’t be there.”
The Clayton County Jail has attracted notoriety amid reports of rampant violence and horrific living conditions. Last year, former sheriff Victor Hill was convicted of ordering his employees to strap pre-trial detainees—including a teenager with mental illness—in restraint chairs for hours. Hill’s godson, Levon Allen, was sworn in as interim sheriff in December. Voters will decide in an April 18 runoff election whether he serves a full term.
CorrectHealth, a Georgia-based company, is responsible for providing healthcare to the jail’s population, which totaled more than 1700 people as of February. More than 75 percent were pre-trial detainees and presumed innocent.
Clayton County pays CorrectHealth nearly $1 million a month for its services. The company has been sued multiple times for allegedly neglecting the needs of incarcerated patients. CorrectHealth did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
Willison was the first Clayton County Jail detainee to die in 2023. Four detainees died in 2022, according to CCSO records. Of those, two were ruled homicides; one person died from cancer, and one died from complications related to a perforated gastric ulcer, according to documents provided by Byars of the medical examiner’s office.
On July 21, 2022, a 43-year-old man was found convulsing in his cell and taken to a local hospital, where he died, according to the investigative report by the medical examiner’s office, which The Appeal reviewed. An autopsy report, obtained by The Appeal, revealed that lung cancer had spread throughout his body. The man had been at the jail since May 7, 2022. Jail officials had initially claimed his death was asthma-related, according to the family’s attorney.
Beyond the issues of medical neglect in Willison’s case, the CCSO included false statements in its report on his death, according to Byars. The sheriff’s incident report, dated 11 days after Willison’s death, stated that Willison had been diagnosed with “severe medical issues” before he arrived at Clayton County Jail. But there are “zero facts to show he was diagnosed with any issues prior to his arrival at Clayton County Jail,” Byars concluded. Willison’s last doctor’s visit, which occurred a year before his death, showed that he was in good health, according to Byars.
The author of the CCSO report stated that medical staff confirmed Willison’s death was caused by “the medical issue” that had been diagnosed, did not involve foul play, and that Willison “had no bruising or scars that could be caused by an assault of any kind.” But the medical providers denied making any of these statements, Byars wrote.
Byars’s investigation found that during Willison’s incarceration, he was assaulted by both staff and detainees. In November, Willison told medical staff that he had been attacked twice within the last hour. He had been beaten in the face, head, abdomen, back, and groin and had blacked out during the first attack.
Willison wrote to his mother that the toilets didn’t work, there was black mold in the jail, and that he was “always hungry.” While detained, Willison was provided a “minimum amount of breakfast” at about 4:30 in the morning, which he would have to be awake to receive, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and no dinner, Byars wrote in his report.
“If the detainee doesn’t have the resources to purchase food from the commissary then they will go without enough calories and nutrients to function,” Byars wrote. “Someone with this type of serous [sic] illness needs more food to have the strength to survive.”
Several people detained at the jail have told The Appeal about the lack of working toilets, meager food portions, and unchecked violence.
Willison also told his mother that he feared for his life behind bars. But in his last few messages home, he appeared more hopeful he’d leave the jail alive.
“If I get out in early part of day I can get to probation before they close,” Willison wrote in his final email to Emerson in January. “I got 3 weeks and I’m free. I’m dying btw mom. I’ll explain later.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the first name of the former Clayton County Sheriff, Victor Hill.
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