For Keaton

On April 8, I was on my way to the White House for a meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama on the importance of investing resources in Native American youth when I got a text via Facebook from my mom.

“I have very bad news, and it seems awkward to tell on Messenger, but it’s the easiest way,” she wrote.

I immediately shoved the phone in my pocket, not wanting her message to ruin what was supposed to be such a great day. Then I started to imagine what the news might be. Was one of my parents hurt? Was the landlord kicking them out of their house? Did the house burn down? I was filled with suspense and dread — and knew I couldn’t go into that meeting without knowing what I needed to face when I left it. The disaster scenarios swirling in my head were more plausible than what I read next.

“Keaton died last night.”

My cousin was 25 when he died April 7 in a jail cell on charges of identity theft and cashing a bad check for $350. It would be 2 months later that my family learned Keaton was refused treatment and medication for his mental health problems — and the official cause of his death, determined by the Island County Medical Examiner:

Dehydration and malnutrition. Keaton’s autopsy determined he’d simply not been given enough water or food.

An investigation conducted by an Island County detective found that in the 13 days Keaton was incarcerated, he had been provided 185 ounces of water. That’s less than a gallon and a half of water over a period of almost two weeks. Under National Institute of Health guidelines, his intake should have been 1,563 ounces. FEMA guidelines state 791 ounces would be necessary for survival in an emergency situation. This means that Keaton received less than 1/4 of the water needed to survive even under dire conditions.

When the investigation report was released, public commentary was mostly supportive of our family — but one comment has stuck with me: “Maybe he shouldn’t have landed in jail then.” Never mind its disgusting and ignorant nature. This sentiment highlights much broader problems in our society and “justice” system, especially for Native Americans and people suffering mental illness.

In the United States, people with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility. About 40 percent of people with a severe mental illness will have spent some time of their lives in jail, prison or community corrections.

In Estelle vs. Gamble (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to provide adequate medical care – including mental health care – to inmates. Yet, many in incarceration find themselves without the proper care and treatment needed to keep them safe and healthy.

In addition to the mentally ill who are caught in the corrections system, there’s a bigger issue the “justice” system faces. Studies continuously show Native Americans are overrepresented in jails and prisons. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average. In the past five years, the number of Native Americans incarcerated in federal prisons has increased by 27 percent. In South Dakota alone, Native Americans make up only 8.5 percent of the state’s total population — yet they compose 60 percent of its prison and jail populations.

“While Keaton wasn’t Native, Natives are historically deprived and rely on a trust relationship with the federal government to provide proper education and healthcare. Unsurprisingly, the federal government typically falls short of its responsibilities. However, the federal government can take active steps to resolve Native American overrepresentation in prisons and the juvenile corrections system by funding child and family services on reservations and tribal juvenile and addiction rehabilitation centers.

Similarly, officials at all levels of government need to start looking at inmates with mental health issues from a different perspective. Instead of ignoring the issues, proper care and treatment must be prioritized and made readily available. Law enforcement officers must be trained to handle inmates with mental health problems, and they must learn and use proper procedures to manage their care.

People who are incarcerated are human beings. And every human, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, must, at the very least, be provided basic necessities. Water, food and air are certainly among them.

While Keaton’s death is tragic — and all the more painful because of how humble his aspirations were. He had a huge heart and just sought to bring peace to this world. He was a poet and a mastermind with words. He planned to one day sail around the world. He will be remembered by our family, his friends, and those whose hearts he has touched as the fun-loving guy with a bright smile and jolly laugh who could bring immediate happiness to anyone. Our family will not stand by idly and wait for things to change. Things must change NOW, and we will dedicate ourselves to ensuring no one ever has to suffer as Keaton did.

For more information about Keaton, please visit