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Prison guards sued after inmate dies of water poisoning

Prison fence. State auditors say Michigan prisons could have saved millions in prescription costs.
Simon Brass
Prison fence. State auditors say Michigan prisons could have saved millions in prescription costs.

The mother of an Ionia County prisoner is suing three prison guards for allegedly allowing her mentally ill son to commit suicide by drinking water nonstop for two hours, despite having placed him on suicide watch.

Kenneth Dalstra, 41, was serving 3 ½ to 75 years for criminal sexual conduct, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by an attorney for Dalstra's mother, Debra Scherbinksi’s, says that after a visit to her son last spring, Scherbinski told one of the guards at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility that Dalstra needed medical attention.

Dalstra was suffering from “seizure activity, full-blown schizophrenia, and [was] devoid of mental stability,” according to the suit.

The three Ionia prison guards are only identified by their last names in the lawsuit: Corrections Officers Palmer and Summers and Lt. McDonald.

A history of mental illness and “bizarre” behavior

According to the suit, Lt. McDonald told Scherbinski that no one was available to see if her son needed medical attention that weekend, but that they’d check on him Monday.

However on Sunday, April 6, 2014, an Officer Palmer saw that Dalstra was drinking an excessive amount of water and ordered him to stop. Dalstra ignored her, according to the suit, so Officer Palmer turned off Dalstra’s water and brought in a psychologist.

That psychologist, identified only as “Williams” in the lawsuit,  noted that Dalstra was “becoming more bizarre and reports placing fecal matter in his eyes.”

Suicide watch, and death by water poisoning 

The prison put together a management plan to stop Dalstra from hurting himself, the lawsuit says.

Soon after, the same psychologist said his suicide risk was moderate, and the lawsuit says Dalstra’s management plan included a suicide watch and being observed every 15 minutes.

But in the early morning hours of April 8, 2014, Dalstra allegedly drank water nonstop for two hours straight and was found unresponsive in his cell.  

He was pronounced dead by paramedics at 7:10 a.m., due to water intoxication, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesman with the Michigan Department of Corrections said this morning that they haven’t yet been served with the lawsuit, but that they are investigating this death. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.