It’s been nearly a year since Christopher Hinkle was beaten to death inside a Philadelphia jail cell, but his family says it knows little more about his last moments than it did when first told of his death.
“I don’t know anything,” said his mother, Diana Lawhon. “I know from what I saw in the hospital, from what the doctors told me, and from the autopsy report. But I don’t know what happened in the jail. I don’t know what happened in that cell. I don’t know why he was put in with somebody who was in on a violent crime when [her son] was in on a drug charge.”
Lawhon, of the Poconos, and her surviving grown children, Danielle Calabro and Eric Hinkle, are suing the city in Common Pleas Court, contending that the Department of Prisons shares the blame for Christopher’s wrongful death for placing him in a cell with Rameel Wright, who has been charged with his murder.
Hinkle, 37, died two weeks after being attacked last April at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia. Wright, 28, was behind bars awaiting trial after four arrests in early 2021. Two of the arrests were for aggravated assaults, a third was for simple assault, and a fourth was for alleged harassment.
One of the aggravated-assault cases was later dropped by prosecutors two months before the attack on Hinkle. In that case, court records say Wright was ordered committed for mental health issues.
Before that he had been found guilty of an incident of harassment in 2018 and of shoplifting in 2017 and 2019.
Wright, who is being held without bail for the slaying, and Hinkle, who was jailed for minor drug distribution charges, were the only ones in the locked cell at the time of the April 12 attack. According to an internal report obtained by The Inquirer, after Hinkle was found unconscious in the cell his cellmate admitted to the assault.
Hinkle’s manner of death was determined to be homicide and the cause of death was found to have been the result of blunt impact injuries, city Associate Medical Examiner Julia C. de la Garza-Jordan concluded in the autopsy report, a copy of which The Inquirer obtained.
“My client’s mental health will be a major component of the defense,” said Timothy J. Tarpey, Wright’s lawyer, who declined to comment further.
Due to the pending litigation the Philadelphia Department of Prisons cannot comment about the case, said John Mitchell, a spokesperson.
“In most jails there’s basic safety, but in the Philadelphia jails for some time, that has not been the case,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for the rights of inmates.
Since COVID-19 has curtailed normal operations in city jails — with inmates spending far more time in lockdown — and thinned the ranks of correctional officers, Shubik-Richards said, the city’s jails have not been safe environments for inmates. “There is insufficient supervision, there is insufficient opportunity to alert staff to danger. It’s not a safe place,” she said, “because the necessary systems in terms of buzzers, and observation and necessary staff are missing.”
Since getting the phone call that her son was unconscious at Jefferson Torresdale Hospital after being beaten, Lawhon, 61, said her family has grieved and seethed and wondered.
“I hope he lost consciousness early in that beating, but I don’t know. Was there a guard? It’s those kinds of questions,” she said. “They didn’t protect his life. Was he not valued? How did this happen? The details, details. We have no answers.”
Calabro said the image of her brother’s battered, disfigured face as he fought for his life in the hospital is seared into her memory. “I’ve never seen a beating like this. Somebody has to pay for this. It looked like he got stomped and beat by 15 people,” she said. “I can’t image what he went through.”
Eric Hinkle said the family hoped that the suit will help spur the city to make reforms to keep inmates safe. “We want to prevent this from happening to other families. We want prevention and accountability,” he said.
Christopher Hinkle, who had been arrested several days before he was attacked, was being held on $2,000 bail. His family was unaware of the arrest until after the assault. He suffered brain damage and his neck, ribs, and an eye socket were broken, according to the autopsy report. He died of his injuries in the hospital April 25.
A writ of summons has been filed in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas notifying the city that it is being sued, said Jordan Strokovsky, the Hinkle family lawyer, the first step in the civil suit process. Strokovsky said a detailed lawsuit would be filed once the family obtained “key information that we believe that the city is withholding from us.”
“Alarms have been sounding since the start of the pandemic,” Strokovsky said. “The prison administrators looked the other way as their corrections officers and their inmates begged for help, and this inaction has turned a tough situation into a deadly one.”
Hinkle is one of three city prisoners in 2021 whose deaths were allegedly committed by other inmates; two others were killed by fellow prisoners in 2020. Authorities have made arrests in all the deaths.
In 2021, Dale Curbeam, 60, was killed on Jan. 15 and Armani Faison, 35, was killed on March 27. Faison’s family has also sued the city, alleging he was killed after he was put in a cell with an inmate who had raped a previous cellmate there. No guards were in the unit while Faison was beaten to death, the lawsuit says.
Andrew Richman, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, did not respond to an Inquirer phone message seeking comment.
Lawhon said her son grew up in Ocean Township, N.J., and moved near Temple University with his girlfriend in 2019 to work for a catering company. He had battled a drug problem since his teens, she said, but managed to graduate with a business degree from a community college in New Jersey.
After his death, his kidneys, liver, lungs, and adrenal glands were donated per his wishes, his mother said.
“He wasn’t violent. He was an addict and he was put in the wrong cell,” Lawhon said. “Why? How? When is it going to stop? Chris isn’t the only one who died in that prison. They need to treat these men like human beings. They need to be protected. Even the man who did this to my son needs to be protected. Now his life is ruined, too.”