A 53-year-old woman who died at the Central Booking and Intake Facility in downtown Baltimore earlier this month appeared heavily intoxicated and in need of medical attention hours before she was found unresponsive in her cell, according to a fellow detainee.
"When we saw her in the finger-printing room, getting our mugshots, she couldn't even stand up. They should have sent her to the hospital right then and there," said Tina Poniatowski, 51, of Dundalk, who said she was processed at the same time as Bernice Mitchell and witnessed the events.
Instead, Poniatowski said she watched as Mitchell was able to continue ingesting what she believed to be illicit drugs from a small paper packet in her pocket, as corrections officers ignored her deteriorating health.
Family members of Mitchell say she had a history of crack cocaine use and a prescription for painkillers. They said they still have not been told how she died on Dec. 4, but question why she wasn't given medical attention earlier — especially given Poniatowski's observations.
"To me, that's like neglect," said Mitchell's husband, Joe Mitchell. "If people who aren't medical professionals and who were being processed are saying she needed medical attention, I don't see why the professionals couldn't see that as well."
State corrections officials said they could not comment on Poniatowski's claims because Mitchell's death remains under investigation. Corrections spokesman Gerard Shields has said the department is withholding information until the investigation is completed and the state medical examiner determines the cause and manner of Mitchell's death.
A spokesman for the medical examiner's officer confirmed that no determinations had been made as of Tuesday.
Mitchell was arrested on an outstanding theft warrant from Howard County and brought to Central Booking by Maryland Transit Administration Police on Dec. 3, Shields said.
Her husband said he was told by investigators that his wife was initially stopped by MTA Police because "she couldn't prove that she had paid for whatever form of transportation she was on."
He provided The Baltimore Sun with a copy of a $50 citation his wife had received from the MTA Police for "failure to exhibit proof of payment" about 8:45 p.m. on Dec. 3 at 5701 Smith Avenue, which is at the Mount Washington light rail station.
Joe Mitchell said his wife had been Christmas shopping that day, as evidenced by what she was carrying at the time of her arrest: a new pair of sneakers, and a Christmas card for her elderly mother in Alabama.
Her address on the citation was that of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia, where her family said she had been staying. They said Mitchell was homeless, but still connected to and loved by her family.
The MTA Police did not respond to a request for comment or documents related to the case.
Poniatowski, who was arrested on gun possession charges she denies, said she felt compelled to share what she saw because it was wrong.
The corrections department has said that officers checked on Mitchell multiple times over the course of several hours before finding her unresponsive and calling for a medic, and that efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful. Mitchell's family said they were not informed of her death until days later.
Poniatowski said that Mitchell was sweet and coherent at times, telling stories about Grassroots and the breakfast provided there. But, Poniatowski said, it was clear that Mitchell "was high" as well.
"I said, 'Are you OK?' And she just said she was tired, really tired," Poniatowski said.
At one point, Poniatowski said she saw Mitchell holding a small paper package and wiping small flecks of white powder off her pant leg and putting it into her mouth. Poniatowski said she alerted a corrections officer in part because she feared that Mitchell was ingesting more drugs when she had already ingested too much.
"You could tell she'd done too much already," she said.
The officer dismissed her, she said. "She said she had her searched and they couldn't find it, which is bull crap," Poniatowski said.
At some point, Mitchell was moved to another cell across a hallway, and soon slumped over on a bench, appearing to be asleep, Poniatowski said.
Multiple times, she didn't respond to officers calling out her name, and the officers did not check on her, Poniatowski said.
Later, an officer approached Mitchell and pushed her, Poniatowski said. Mitchell fell to the floor, hitting her head, Poniatowski said.
Mitchell's family members observed a large bruise on her head when they went to identify her body, her husband said.
The guard then started screaming, "Call 911! Call 911!" Poniatowski said. But at that point, it was too late, she said.
For hours afterward, Mitchell's body remained on the floor of the hallway under a blanket, Poniatowski said.
"It was awful," Poniatowski said. "It shouldn't have happened."