Late in the afternoon on July 16, under a rather hot sun, a small group gathered for a vigil to acknowledge and honor Nicole Turner. Had we not been mostly dressed in black in front of the entrance to a jail, we could have been seen as an extended family outing for a happy mid-July picnic. There was a little girl of 6 with long, strawberry blond hair, running around with her doll. There were a couple of blond children, a boy and girl. There were several middle-aged, parental people; a couple of guys who looked like they might have just come from work, and older, grandmotherly types.

Nicole Turner, left, with her aunt, Peggy Turner, holding Nicole’s first child, her daughter Mercedes, now 12. Nicole was found dead of a suspected overdose in her York County Jail cell July 3, prompting her aunt to ask how her niece got drugs in jail or whether she was going through withdrawal.

I find as I look back on that afternoon that I cannot get the picture or the family out of my mind. The extended family of Nicole Turner, once more from the outside, could have been any Maine family. Yet they are a family stalked by unimaginable tragedy, which, even that afternoon, they tried gamely to rise above. It didn’t take long to find out that the family had brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters, uncles and aunts, all cut down at relatively young ages in the grip of substance use disorders. The remaining members of the family, out of their meager resources, were trying to bail family members out of jail or pay for treatment or simply find support for those they loved.

We learned that the young woman we came to mourn, and honor, had graduated at the top of her high school class, despite having been raped as a teen while in foster care. And, ironically, it was in a form of government care that Nicole Turner – who had recently told her loved ones that she hoped to emerge with a “clean slate” – was found dead in her cell July 3 at the young age of 34, under circumstances still not fully explained to the family.

I was humbled by the courage and eloquence of the family as they mourned what I only dimly understood. I wondered why our number was so small. Where was the outrage or even simple concern? Of those present for the vigil, only one was a member of the jail Board of Visitors. There were no county commissioners present. This was a truly promising and brave young woman who had died, essentially, in their custody, and ours, as taxpaying citizens.

The sheriff who helped organize the event by providing medical support, chairs, a podium, water and staff seemed like a caring person. I wondered how he must have been feeling in this terrible circumstance.

I ask you, the readers, to think about these facts. We have still not addressed the opioid epidemic, and Mainers are paying a very heavy price. The extended Turner family is not alone. Substance use disorders remain the only illnesses that we continue to criminalize by jailing those affected. This is a medical condition that deserves a medical solution.

But perhaps worst of all, those who oversee the health and wellbeing of the adults in jails and prisons are clearly ill equipped to assume that responsibility, which in turn exerts a price. The county jail or the state prison that assumes responsibility for those incarcerated cares for them. Yet they continue to die in the hands of their caregivers. Where, indeed, is the outrage?

Comments are no longer available on this story