Mistreatment of Incarcerated People: One Nonviolent Activist’s Experience and the Broader Problem

Posted on May 21, 2024 By

by Sarah Terzo

Pro-life activist Heather Idoni, 59, who is awaiting sentencing for blocking entrances to abortion facilities, suffered a stroke at Northern Neck Regional Jail in West Virginia after being subjected to extended solitary confinement and other inhumane treatment.

Information in this article comes from a May 9, 2024, email from the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU) unless otherwise indicated.

Mistreatment Suffered in Jail

Idoni was found guilty of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in multiple states. According to Live Action News, Idoni is facing up to fifty years in prison and fines of over one million dollars—all for nonviolent civil disobedience.

Idoni was first placed in solitary confinement for sharing food with another inmate. She remained there, in isolation, for two weeks. She was out of confinement for less than a day when she was sent back, this time for taking off her wrist ID bracelet. Idoni has severe carpal tunnel syndrome and may have removed her bracelet because of pain.

For these “crimes” she spent twenty-two days in solitary confinement. Staff kept the jail cell’s lights on all day and night.

Heather Idoni

According to the United Nations, what Idoni experienced were human rights violations.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules) prohibits solitary confinement “in excess of 15 consecutive days,” deeming it “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The Nelson Mandela Rules also forbid the “[p]lacement of a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell.”

This was not the only ill-treatment Idoni endured. Witnesses say that when she was brought into the courtroom for a pre-trial hearing in Detroit, she was shackled at her wrists, waist, and feet. Idoni has never been violent.

Witness Carl Zastrow recalls that even the judge was horrified:

The shocked judge ordered the shackles removed. Initially, the marshal agreed to remove the shackles from only one wrist to allow Idoni freedom to write, a concession necessary for her to take notes, as she was then representing herself in court. Only at the insistence of the indignant judge were the shackles of both wrists finally removed, although the marshal left the bars around her waist and feet.

Idoni has also endured repeated strip searches.

Denial of Medical Care

Idoni was convicted of civil disobedience in Tennessee, then sent back to Oklahoma, where she began experiencing chest pains. She was then moved to West Virginia, where she had the stroke after being kept in solitary confinement.

Idoni has diabetes, and was denied her insulin, both before and after her stroke. After heart surgery, she couldn’t get insulin for two days. When she finally got the insulin, she says, she became dizzy and lightheaded. Afraid of falling, she grabbed the handrail in a hallway. The guard escorting her forced her to let go of the handrail and walk without holding on.

She also complained about being cold at night. Guards refused to give Idoni sufficient blankets to stay warm, even though she was recovering from surgery.

No one told Idoni’s family about her stroke. In fact, they didn’t even know where Idoni was for a while. They weren’t told when she was transported from one facility to another, and she wasn’t able to contact them and tell them where she was.

After unsuccessfully trying to locate Idoni, her son, a US veteran, contacted the VA and asked for help. With the VA’s help, they finally located Idoni and found out that she was in the hospital.

Family and Previous Activism

Idoni was born in Indianapolis in 1964. Her birth mother chose adoption, and Idoni grew up in an adoptive family. After Idoni married her husband Jim in 1987, the couple adopted and raised ten orphaned Ukrainian children alongside their biological children. Idoni now has nine grandchildren. One of her grandchildren was born during her incarceration.

Idoni has been active in the pro-life movement since 1988. She also raised money to send hundreds of emergency medical kits to Ukraine during the worst of the Covid pandemic.

Idoni is a deeply religious Christian. After she took part in a pro-life “rescue” in 2022, she realized she might go to jail. She spent two years praying for everyone she would meet while incarcerated. She says that, though in jail, she continues to feel God’s presence and take comfort in her faith.

A Death from a Stroke in the Same Jail

The cruelty Idoni has faced in jail is very common in the US prison system. In fact, Idoni is not the first person to be denied medication, nor to suffer a stroke while at Northern Neck Regional Jail.

In March 2016, Jaimee Kirkwood Reese suffered a fatal stroke in her cell after jail employees refused to give her the stroke-prevention medications she was prescribed after open-heart surgery.

Reese was serving a year-long sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. Jail staff denied her medical care after her stroke. Instead of taking her to the hospital, jail employees placed the unconscious Reese on a stretcher and put her in another cell for “medical observation.” She lay there, unattended, for eleven hours.

By the time Reese was finally transferred to the hospital, she was brain-dead. Reese was only thirty-two years old. She had been at Northern Neck Regional Jail for two weeks.

According to the jail’s Superintendent Ted Hull, “No policies or procedures were changed as a result” of Reese’s death.

Fortunately, Idoni received treatment in time to save her life.

Deaths from Denial of Insulin

We can only hope Idoni is now being given her insulin. Diabetes is a life-threatening illness, and denying a diabetic person insulin can subject them to coma and death, as well as complications such as blindness and loss of limbs.

Sadly, the denial of insulin is common in the US prison system.

In Tennessee, sixty inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility alleging they were forced to wait hours for their insulin after eating or were denied it entirely. The prisoners have documented complaints to prison staff going back years. CoreCivic, the for-profit company that runs the prison, is also facing two more lawsuits related to insulin refusal, including that of Jonathan Salada, who suffered serious complications from diabetes, was denied medical care, and died.

CoreCivic has denied wrongdoing and claims all sixty-two plaintiffs refused insulin, used illegal drugs, and skipped meals and were therefore responsible for their own complications.

An article in the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution profiled twelve inmates from Georgia who died from uncontrolled diabetes while in jail.

Willie Whaley, a type I diabetic, received no insulin for forty-eight hours before his death. His autopsy revealed a blood sugar reading five times the normal range.

Wickie Bryant, 55, also died after not receiving insulin. She was arrested for disorderly conduct and later discovered dead in her jail cell. Bryant was mentally ill, which may have contributed to her arrest, and had a history of refusing medications, but wasn’t hospitalized when her condition became critical.

Esteban Mosqueda-Romero had high blood sugar when he was first incarcerated, but by the time staff sent him to the hospital, his blood sugar was 1472, nearly 13 times the normal level.

Authorities arrested military veteran Douglas Brown for falling behind on his child support payments. According to a lawsuit filed by his father, staff didn’t give Brown his diabetes medication. He was found dead on the floor of his cell.

When Paul Mullinax was transported to Habersham County Detention Center for a probation violation, he told staff he was a type II diabetic. His daughter brought in his medication and turned it over to the prison staff. But the staff never gave it to him. After a week without his medication, Mullinax died.

Barnes Nowlin, Jr., 39, had diabetes and took three kinds of medication. His wife brought his medications to the jail after he his arrest, but jail employees never gave them to him, nor did they test his blood sugar.

Before his death, Nowlin vomited for hours and was unable to stand, but the jail nurse ignored requests to check on him. A coroner’s inquest labeled Nowlin’s death a homicide, but no criminal charges were ever filed against anyone at the jail.

What was his crime? He missed a hearing in a traffic case.

These are just a few cases of prisoners not receiving life-saving medications.

Some people may not care about prisoners, feeling that criminals deserve to suffer. But not all incarcerated people are guilty. The Innocence Project has exonerated 191 wrongly convicted people from death row and over 250 convicted of lesser crimes.

University of Michigan law professor Samuel R. Gross of the Innocence Project says:

If we reviewed prison sentences with the same level of care that we devote to death sentences, there would have been over 28,500 non-death-row exonerations in the past 15 years, rather than the 255 that have in fact occurred. (from Skeptic, p. 197)

Everyone deserves basic medical care and humane treatment.


For our blog posts on similar topics, see: 

The Random Death Sentence: COVID in Prisons and Jails

Police Brutality Against Protesters

Police Brutality to the Preborn

Tear Gas and Miscarriages


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  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    I thought West Virginia had resumed at least some protection of the unborn post-Dobbs. Maybe there was legislation passed since I last checked, but the National Right To Life Committee’s website has a document which indicates this also:


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