LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Hope Keown was reading the newspaper in her kitchen when she noticed a face she hadn’t seen in years. Staring up from the page was her estranged stepfather’s mug shot, next to a story about how he starved himself to death in a Kentucky prison.
The story triggered tears, confusion and a torrent of memories about James Kenneth Embry, the man she knew as “Kenny” and “Spider Red.” She recalled the good times, such as when a sober Embry helped with homework and folded laundry. But there were also the drugs, alcohol and disappearances that lasted for days or weeks until he finally drifted away for good.
When The Associated Press exposed that Embry had died after a five-week hunger strike, prison officials said no family had visited him in prison or claimed his remains. He was buried in a pauper’s grave.
But within days of the AP story, Embry’s family finally found the man they lost touch with years earlier.
“We didn’t even know he was back in prison,” Keown said.
She and her mother, 58-year-old Mae Embry of Owensboro, Kentucky, didn’t believe what they were reading at first, then broke into tears as the reality set in. They had trouble finding the words to tell other family and friends.
“Kenny was very strong willed so it breaks my heart that he resorted to starving himself,” Keown said. “I think he wanted to live the good life and be a family man. He just didn’t know how to shake his demons.”
Embry, 57, died in January at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville after the hunger strike that included a nine-day stretch in which he lost 32 pounds from his six-foot frame, dropping down to just 138 pounds.
Embry’s death of dehydration and starvation, first reported by The AP, prompted an internal investigation by corrections officials and a separate investigation by state police. The case exposed lapses in medical treatment and the handling of hunger strikes, and the local prosecutor is considering whether a grand jury should hear the case.
The state fired the prison’s lead doctor and is pursuing dismissals or disciplinary action against several other staff members.
Embry had drifted in and out of jails since 1978, serving short sentences for drug offenses and assault. In 2010, he was finally hit with a nine-year term for multiple drug crimes.
Between stints behind bars, Embry had two sons and a daughter, married Mae Keown Embry and moved in with her and her two daughters.
Embry entered Hope Keown’s life when she was 9.
“When my stepdad was on his medication, he was the best ever!” said Keown, now 35.
When he was sober, Embry was a hard-working man who was big on family dinners, helping with homework and teaching his stepchildren life skills, from changing a tire and saving money to washing dishes and folding laundry, Keown and her mother said.
Embry purchased the crib and changing table for Keown’s first child when she was 19.
“That was probably one of the last moments I really shared with him,” she said.
But after a while, Embry “grew bored and started partying with a certain group of friends that mom made clear was just a bad group of friends,” mainly people he had met in jail over the years, Keown said. That’s when he brought out “Spider Red,” the nickname he gave to the side of his personality fueled by alcohol and drugs — and the nickname he felt compelled to get tattooed on his right arm.
Family members said Embry had battled for years with mental illness and addiction. As much as all of that drove them apart, it also fuels their anger at how his life ended in a tragic death while in the state’s care.
“This man needed treatment,” Mae Embry said. “Just because he’s mentally ill, you don’t throw him out with the dishwater.”
He didn’t like taking anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications and would start using drugs and alcohol, then land in jail. Things got worse when his father, Herman Embry, died in 2001 while James Embry was in jail. Officials wouldn’t grant him furlough to attend the funeral.
“I think that changed him,” Keown said. “I think he started to lose hope.”
The marriage ended more than a decade ago, and Embry’s family lost touch with him long before he began his final prison sentence. No dramatic moment led to the split. Instead, after the divorce, different lifestyles simply pushed him out of his loved ones’ orbit.
Inside the 125-year-old maximum-security stone-walled prison known as “the Castle on the Cumberland,” Embry had multiple disciplinary infractions and a fight with another inmate in 2013 led him to request a cell in solitary confinement because he feared for his safety. In May 2013, Embry requested to stop taking anti-anxiety medications. In December, he was denied a request to resume them.
Four days later, he began refusing meals. He did not make clear why he began the hunger strike, but he expressed suicidal thoughts and told a prison psychologist: “I have nothing left to live for.”
Mae Embry and Keown are now dealing with regrets and hope to make some amends by trying to move his remains to a family plot.
“Just because you’re divorced doesn’t mean we stopped caring about him,” Mae Embry said. “It’s just, sometimes when someone is like that, you need to move on with your life.”
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