Members of the Lancaster County Jail board and warden have ripped the chair of the Lancaster Bail Fund, saying she released inaccurate information about a man who died in a hotel room days after the fund bailed it out earlier this month.
Michelle Batt said at Thursday’s prison board meeting – and posted on social media last week – that the man, John Choma, 66, had been jailed because he couldn’t posting $5,000 bail for allegedly stealing $28 worth of items from a Sheetz.
“He had been in jail for 48 to 36 hours and not receiving his medication. This gentleman had a lot of pre-existing conditions and chronic illnesses,” Batt said.
She called for an investigation.
“Because when you have bail practices like we have now and someone is completely torn from their life, you can’t plan to bring your meds…” Batt said. “And so five days later he was dead.”
Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni told LNP | LancasterOnline later Thursday, investigators determined without needing to do an autopsy that Choma had died of upper gastrointestinal bleeding.
Choma received his medication at the jail and was not simply imprisoned for retail theft, according to Presiding Judge David Ashworth, Director Cheryl Steberger and County Commissioner Josh Parsons.
“It wasn’t just a matter of $28 at the Sheetz. This is a long history of not appearing,” Ashworth said.
He said Choma had eight outstanding warrants: five for failure to pay related to previous cases and three for failure to appear.
Steberger became visibly upset when she took the lectern to respond to Batt.
“To publicly stand up and blame my staff who have so desperately worked so hard for this. Do you blame me? …To blame me for a death that occurred outside my facility a few days after my release? I don’t even know how to answer it. I don’t even know if that deserves an answer,” Steberger said. She also said Choma was only in jail for 30 hours, not 36 to 48.
“I should have started with a strong statement that this is in no way a reflection on you or the prison,” she said, trying to explain that bail is a system problem. She also said she didn’t expect the board to know what happened and wanted to bring it to their attention.
Parsons read the Bail Fund Facebook post about Choma, then noted that he failed to include other reasons for Choma’s incarceration.
“There is a rational place for rational conversations about who should be in jail and who shouldn’t, but when you put out information like this that is so inaccurate it can really only be described as lies, you’re not helping the community and you’re not helping this conversation,” Parsons said.
Batt founded the bail fund in July after spending five years with the county public defender’s office. She said she wanted to challenge the inequity she sees in the system.
Choma was the 10th person the fund bailed out. Batt herself picked him up on Feb. 2, drove him to a drug store to get some medicine, and then took him to a motel where he was staying. He died on February 8.
Ashworth, in his comments, said it was “inappropriate to take federal issues that may exist or issues that may exist elsewhere and apply them to Lancaster County without looking at the specifics.”
And sometimes jail is the best place for someone in trouble, Ashworth said.
“And the prison, because of the short period of time (Choma was in prison), never had the opportunity to provide the services that this man desperately needed. And he needed help. And there’s no doubt about it,” Ashworth said.