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Prostitution Is Not A Capital Crime
Joanie Holmes Dies in Sonoma County Jail

(This article is based on interviews with several women incarcerated in Sonoma County Jail June 2-4, 1997. The witnesses' names have been changed to prevent retaliation.)

On June 2, 1997, Joanne Marie ("Joanie") Holmes was booked into Sonoma County Jail on an outstanding prostitution warrant. Two days later she was dead — the fifth person to die at the hands of police or in custody since the first of the year.

"I saw her after booking," Crystal told me. "She was flyin' on something; but she wasn't sick — she wasn't dyin'." But soon after she was put in a cell, Joanie Holmes became desperately ill. "She was throwing up constantly — really violently sick — gasping for air. All the time she was pushing that call button and asking for medical help. It was horrible," Crystal continued. Medical help never came.

In fact, Joanie Holmes was horribly sick and asking for a medic for all of the last three days of her life. "She would hit the call button, and they would buzz open her door and wait," Donna, another inmate, reports. "When she didn't come out, they'd come up and just close her door. Once a guard told her to fill out a call slip and turn it in down at central. That was it — then he just left her there."

By the second day, still vomiting all day, Joanie was noticeably weaker. According to the women I interviewed, as Joanie's condition worsened, her treatment by jail personnel deteriorated even further. By this time other inmates were telling the guards, "That girl desperately needs help. She's really sick and needs a medic." Alicia says the guards would say, "We know, we know," but still no medic came. "They treated her like a junkie; a piece of garbage — like she was a waste of their time. I mean, they went overboard to ignore her," Crystal says.

On the morning of June 4th, the guards brought a wheelchair to take Joanie to court. "They were makin' jokes about her — that she was grossin' them out," Woman PrisonerAlicia told me. "They stood downstairs and yelled her name over and over, yelling for her to come out. Finally, the guy went up to her room, came back and said, ‘Forget it, we're leaving without her.'"

By this time Joanie was reportedly so weak she just moaned — all day long she moaned. Around 2:00 p.m. she came out into the courtyard for maybe ten minutes, then returned to her room. The women spoke of this, the last time they saw Joanie alive.

"I couldn't believe it was the same person. Her skin was grey — almost black; her bottom eyelids were pulled away from her eyeballs. She had deep black circles under her eyes, and her skin was wrinkled; hanging. Her face looked like death," according to Crystal. Clearly Joanie was severely dehydrated by this time. Surely the jail personnel too saw the signs. Still they did nothing.

Donna says the sounds of Joanie Holmes' desperate fight for life "just stopped" sometime around 3 p.m. on June 4th. Jail officials say they discovered her at 6 p.m., and pronounced her dead at 6:28.

"About 6:30 the guard called her over the intercom because ‘classification' was there to see her," Donna remembers. When she didn't answer, the guard went up to her room and stood there yelling Joanie's name over and over. "I think he knew she was dead then," Donna reports, "because then he yelled down for the woman from classification to come up to the room, which is just not procedure — classification never comes up to the rooms. I think the guard just wanted somebody else to find her dead,"

When the classification official entered the room, she too yelled Joanie's name and then, after a brief silence ran to the railing and shouted, "Oh my god, she's dead. She's dead!" Alicia says it took another 20-30 minutes before a medical person came to the room, claimed there was a faint pulse and sent for oxygen. Another 10 minutes passed before the oxygen arrived. But Joanie Holmes was already dead.

"She didn't have to die that way, suffering for three days — it was so cruel," Donna wailed, as she caressed her own small children. "The thing that haunts me is that Joanie had two little kids, an 8-month old baby and a 2-year old. She was booked on a no-bail hold, so she was going to be in jail long enough to kick the drugs, and maybe could have made a fresh start. Instead those kids are motherless." Crystal goes further: "That was torture, what they did to her. I've never seen anything so inhumane. I couldn't do that to my worst enemy."

(Editor's Note. A wrongful death lawsuit against the Sonoma County Jail on behalf of Joanie Holmes' children was settled in late 2000 for an undisclosed amount of money.)


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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