A Needless Death: The Tony Lester Story

A column by Oliver J. Semans about the suicide of Tony Lester.

As a Lakota, I was taught to respect life and death. Living on the reservation, death is all too common. From young to old, we have all felt the pain of losing loved ones before their time. Death on our reservations in one way or another touches each and every one of us, even if we live elsewhere. The death of a young Indian man also tells me, we mustn’t forget Tribal members who are out of sight out of mind in shockingly high proportions in the criminal justice system and that their deaths touches us, too.

When I was contacted in reference to a young Indian man, Anthony “Tony” Lester, 26 years of age, who lost his life by suicide while in prison in Arizona, it brought back memories of my 23-year-old nephew, Alfonzo Lee Farmer, who also lost his life by suicide in an Arizona prison and whose funeral I attended just last month.

According to the 2010 Census, there are 5.2 million Native American Indians, and we make up 0.9 percent of the total population. In many states, we are incarcerated in great disproportion to our population numbers. In my state, South Dakota, we make up we are 8.8 percent of the population and yet we make up 23 percent and 35 percent respectively of all inmates and 50% of female prisoners are Native American Indians. In Wyoming, we are 2.4 percent of the population and we make up 7 percent of prisoners. In Montana, we are 6.3 percent of the population and we are 18.8 percent of men and 29.6 percent of women in prison. According to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Native children make up 50 percent of youngsters in the federal prison system.

Let’s place these percentages in prospective and make one of these numbers a real person. Antony “Tony” Lester was an only child. His father was an enrolled member of the Salt River/Pima Reservation who did not have contact with him and his mother. His mother Eleanor is a Sioux/Assiniboine from Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Tony’s mother devoted her life to Tony, raising him as a single mom and always providing the best. He graduated from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School in Scottsdale, Arizona, and then later attended Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.

Tony was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was in high school, struggled with his condition, and was a self-harming as a teenager. He told his family that the voices were "getting worse." Tony was loved and cared for by his family throughout his illness and it was this illness that gave the state of Arizona a reason to send him to prison.

Tony Lester never had any prior convictions and yet he never stood a chance. In 2010, he was sentenced to 12 years in state prison on assault charges stemming from a suicide attempt during a psychotic episode the previous year. Two of his very close friends who tried to stop him from cutting his throat got hurt while grabbing the knife.

Tony was mentally ill and the state of Arizona knew this. Instead of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Tony was put in jail. Nine months of medication restored him to sufficient competency to be deemed fit for trial. He was found guilty by a jury. During this time, it was discovered that Tony was struggling with seven voices telling him to kill himself or he would not go to heaven and that his family would be harmed. Worse yet, says his family, the voices were not just talking to him but to each other, and he felt he could no longer control them.

The judge and court-appointed psychiatrist advised that Tony should be housed in a facility where he would receive the necessary mental health treatment. Yet this was ignored, and he was sent to the Arizona State Prison in Tucson.

Tony was placed with the general prison population; he went off his medication and was sent to a unit for behavioral problems. He was on and off suicide watch. The family recalls vividly that at 11:45 pm on July 11, 2010, they received a phone call informing them that Tony had been taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. A few hours later, at 3:15 am, they received a call saying Tony had died from injuries he had sustained. They learned he had cut his wrists, jugular vein and groin with a razor he was mistakenly provided in a prisoner hygiene pack.

The Lester family battled the state of Arizona for almost two years to gain access to footage filmed by one of the guards, Umberto Hernandez, on the day Tony died. The video shows that the guards did not at any time provide medical assistance. The video is very graphic and watching it, my prayers go out to Tony’s family. A year-long inquiry by Wendy Halloran, investigative reporter with KPNX (Channel 12 Watchdog News), in Phoenix, uncovered much shocking information surrounding the passing of this young man. Click here for the story.

Tony’s aunts, Patti Jones, along with his family throughout Indian country, are now his voice. His family is asking for your help in exposing the inhumanities Tony suffered. They ask you to view Ms. Halloran’s investigative report and post comments to connect@ad.gannett.com and to Brian Williams at nightly@nbc.com. You may also contact Ms. Jones at tonysvoice26@gmail.com.

This story is far from over, looking at the statistics listed above many more Native prisoners must have met this fate as well. The statistics show extreme disproportionality from the beginning of the contact with the justice system, more apprehensions, more arrests, more adjudication’s, more convictions, harsher sentencing, deficiencies in legal advice. Getting involved in helping the Lester family is the first step in learning what we need to do in order to help all of our people.

I leave you with a comment placed on msn.com by a person who self-identified anonymously as one of the jurors: “We could see that he was ill, and we thought that he would get probation and get the help he needed.”

Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.