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June 2012
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Tears for relatives after inmate's fatal hunger strike


LOUISVILLE - 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.

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