April Brogan's undignified death in custody says a lot about how the police and society at large treat sex workers.
April Brogan. Photo courtesy of her family
When a Volusia County, Florida, deputy sheriff and chaplain came to Rebecca Brogan to inform her that her sister April had died last Friday, Rebecca didn't believe them. "You guys are wrong," she said. "She's in jail."
It was Daytona Beach Police who arrested April Brogan, a 28-year-old from Palm Coast, Florida, and a mother to two young children. On April 29, they targeted her in an anti-prostitution sting, charging her with "aiding/abetting/committing prostitution."
April had been in Volusia County Jail before, Rebecca told me. Public records confirm this: On April's arrest report from April 29, her past involvement with drug court is noted. "They knew her," Rebecca said. "They knew her history."
On May 1, at 2:24 PM, two days after her cellmate reported April told her she was dope-sick, April was declared dead.
Rebecca believes her sister would be with alive today if the jail staff had given her the care she needed by properly screening her into detox, where she could be monitored by health-care professionals. "It could have saved her life," Rebecca told me. "She could still be here."
Representatives of Volusia County either have nothing to say or suggest they didn't violate any protocol in the events that led to April's death. "What protocol," wondered her mother, Sandra, "would allow a child to die? My child?"
The Volusia County Jail warden, William McClelland, told me he would not comment on an "open investigation."
"I don't know, 'investigation' is kind of a strong term," Volusia County spokesperson Dave Byron told me. The county sheriff's office had been called in at the time April was found dead, and toxicology reports could take "a couple months" to come in from a medical examiner, he added. Her autopsy is not yet complete, but their "internal review," according to Byron, has been completed.
"We know exactly what happened," Byron said. He ran down a medical intake form he says April completed upon arrival at the jail, but he had no information about what jail staff had done or not done to provide medical help to her. He could not confirm for me if jail staff knew about her case in drug court—though this information was stated on her arrest report. He could not confirm if April Brogan had sought medical help while in the jail between April 29 and her death on May 1.
Volusia County Jail has had to answer questions before about the deaths of women incarcerated there. Tracy Lee Veira died in custody on September 16, 2009, while detoxing from heroin. A woman jailed with Tracy heard her cries in the night, and told RH Reality Check in a recent interview, "It was frightening to hear her beg them, because you could hear in her voice that she didn't feel good." According to the woman, "Correctional officers told Veira to lie down, that she simply had a leg cramp and needed to rest." Veira's family is currently suing the county and Corizon Health, the company that managed care at the jail until the county decided not to renew their contract last year.
Armor Correctional Health Services, the contractor that now provides care to Volusia County Jail, told me in a statement Friday, "Armor's team of caregivers is committed to delivering quality patient care. Armor Correctional Health Service's policy is to strictly adhere to medical protocols for individual situations, diagnoses, and incidents. As a result of our commitment to adhere to these policies, all of which are designed to meet governing agency guidelines, including HIPAA regulations, and out of respect for our patients' privacy, we cannot respond to your request."
In the days since her death on May 1, other women who were incarcerated with April have contacted the Brogan family. They say that April was ill before she died, and that this wasn't the first time April had been denied proper care at Volusia County Jail.
I spoke with one of those women, Emily Cortes. She described the time last year when she was bunkmates at the jail with April, watching her detox. If someone is incarcerated there and detoxing, staff are supposed to send them to a bed in the day room, Cortes said, where they can be more easily monitored by staff. But if the day beds were full, they could just be sent to a regular cell. There, Emily added, if you needed medical attention, "You have to scream out your door."
That's where Emily and April met, in the same cell. "She was so ill," Emily told me, "she didn't know what her name was." Emily had money in her commissary fund that allowed her to purchase medication, which she shared with April to relieve her symptoms. "She lived on my Tylenol and crackers."
"I know firsthand what happens in those places," Rebecca told me. In September 2013, she was also incarcerated at Volusia County Jail. Her sister April was there at the same time. "I was a witness to this—she always went to medical," Rebecca said, "because she knew the withdrawals were horrendous." When they were incarcerated together, according to Rebecca, April acted as her sister's advocate. "'Always, always go into medical, that's the first thing I do,'" Rebecca recounted April telling her.
When she found out April was arrested on April 29, Rebecca remembers she was finishing up her financial aid forms for school (she's studying to become a physician's assistant). "At least we knew where she'd be," she told me.
"We thought she would be in safe hands now," their mother, Sandra, said. Now she wonders if, because police had arrested her so many times, that to them April was just "a thing."
"Obviously they saw her as something different," she said, "something that they needed to sweep under the carpet. 'It's time not to see April around here anymore.'" She paused, apologizing. "I'm angry right now, I'm sad."
"To them, she wasn't a woman," Rebecca said. "She was a prostitute."
April's arrest was just one of 83 the Daytona Police made in the past 12 months targeting women they believed to be engaged in prostitution, according to their own records, which I obtained. A police spokesperson described their routine stings to me as a "continuing effort to increase quality of life." Behind each of these records is a woman: a friend, a daughter, a student. Her friends, family, and coworkers may see her mug shot online before they ever hear from her what happened.
One woman arrested in the same sting as April leapt from the undercover officer's car when she sensed something was wrong and he refused to pull over. As in all the arrests made in this sting, the officer had posed as a man buying sex. The police report narrates the incident this way: "The defendant revealed she was predisposed to commit a crime by asking [undercover officer's name redacted from report] if he was a 'cop.'... The defendant then exited the vehicle while it was in motion." She was additionally charged with resisting an officer.
A local reporter drawing from the same police reports also related this incident, and then chose to describe the other women arrested on April 29, including April, as having "went quietly."
These are the two kinds of stories we're most likely to hear about women engaged in sex work: the salacious details of their arrests, and of their deaths.
Though press reports of April Brogan's death make mention of her family, they also emphasize her arrest record. The Orlando Sentinel re-headlined a mostly anodyne Associated Press story about April as "Prostitution suspect dies in jail after foaming at the mouth."
April went to space camp, her sister Rebecca told me. She was in Brownies for years. She was quirky, "a gorgeous girl with the biggest heart." Her mother remembered taking her to work with her at her construction company, and that April could recite all the Mother Goose rhymes by the time she was four years old.
In the last year, April had been in a rehab program that allowed her to bring her three-year-old daughter Bella with her, but left the program after two months. The program she was in, Emily Cortes told me, can be hard on women, especially mothers, because they can be restricted from contact with their other children and family members in the first 90 days. "Even in jail," Emily said, "they can talk to their kids."
Because April Brogan was ordered to the rehab program through drug court, by leaving, a warrant was automatically put out for her arrest. "She was really scared this time," her mother Sandra said. "She was scared of getting arrested."
I got in contact with April's family thanks to Rebecca's 15-year-old daughter, who created a fundraiser for funeral expenses for her aunt. Though they raised several hundred dollars, she has also had to delete repeated comments posted to the online fundraiser page, according to Rebecca, that link to April's mug shot photos.
"April never judged anyone," her mother Sandra said. "Even when people were judging her. And she's probably one of the most judged people right now."
Sex workers I spoke to know the dangers that come with being incarcerated and detoxing from drug use.
"I know as an opiate-using sex worker, that was always my biggest fear, being arrested and having to go cold turkey in jail, knowing that most penal policy allows for an aspirin at best in treating that situation," Caty Simon, co-editor of the sex workers' blog Tits and Sass, told me. Stigma against drug-using women and women engaged in sex work magnify each other. "The mainstream view is that we did it to ourselves," Simon said, "never mind the part that prisons and criminalization play in our suffering and death.
"Look at the case of Marcia Powell," Simon continued, "a street sex worker and known drug user whom the Arizona prison system left to die of heat exposure in a cage in the sun in 2009, lying in her own waste as her calls for help were ignored."
When I asked Volusia County spokesperson Dave Byron about the reports that April Brogan was ill and in need of medical attention, including the one from the sheriff's incident report on her death quoting her cellmate saying April was "dope-sick," he said, "I'm not gonna go there. We run a very fine facility.
"This was just a circumstance. An unfortunate circumstance," Byron concluded. "She certainly wasn't the first drug user to be taken into our facility. And she won't be the last, I'm sure."
To date, Rebecca says her family hasn't heard from anyone investigating April's death. "The only thing we heard is after I called them and said I'd make a lot of noise." What she wants is accountability, to make sure this never happens again. "They didn't do their job," she told me. "Their inaction killed my sister."
"I don't know whether there's going to be justice for her," Sandra told me, "or justice for anyone following in her footsteps."
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