AP Nation / World

Jul 28, 12:49 PM EDT

Mystery surrounds death of Salem prison inmate


SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- The death of a 27-year-old Salem man at the Oregon State Penitentiary remains a mystery more than a week after it happened.

James Howland died July 18 after being found unresponsive in his cell three days earlier.

Staff members at the Salem prison were recently notified of 10 separate incidents in which inmates needed medical intervention and hospitalization after they started experiencing seizure-like symptoms, vomiting and difficulty breathing, the Statesman Journal reported (http://stjr.nl/2a7cjUB ).

In half those cases, inmates were discovered with synthetic marijuana in their possession.

The memo didn't mention Howland by name, but said: "One of those incidents resulted in the eventual death of an inmate."

Oregon Department of Corrections spokeswoman Elizabeth Craig clarified the memo and said the department made a mistake in attributing the death to the drug.

"A conclusion about his death has not been made and DOC is not the entity that makes that conclusion," she said.

Deputy State Medical Examiner Dr. Larry Lewman is awaiting toxicology reports and Oregon State Police are handling the investigation.

Crystal Gonzalez, Howland's sister, said her brother was on life support at Salem Hospital for two days before officials contacted her.

She said the family decided to take Howland off life support after being told he was brain dead and would not recover. Prison officials told her Howland had been unconscious for 20 minutes before he was found, Gonzalez said.

She waited until her mother returned from a trip, and then said their goodbyes. Immediately, his hospital room was declared a crime scene and they left, Gonzalez said.

His body remains at a funeral home while his family waits for an autopsy report.

"We're angry," Gonzalez said. "We're sad, and nobody is giving us answers."

Synthetic marijuana, also known as "Spice" and "K2," was once sold at freely at smoke shops under the guise of being an herbal incense product.

The drug is usually a dried herb doused in chemicals that produce a marijuana-like high. It is notorious for causing bad reactions such as paranoia, suicidal thoughts, accelerated heart rate, brain damage and even death, the memo to prison staff said

Howland was convicted in 2009 of stealing a car and eluding police. His relatives said he stayed out of trouble after serving time, but returned to his old ways after his brother's suicide.

Howland pleaded guilty in 2014 to reckless driving, hit-and-run with property damage and unauthorized use of a vehicle. His earliest release date was in 6 years.

Kristi Howland, his mother, said her son took parenting classes, worked in the prison kitchen and tried to spend as much time as possible outside in the prison yard.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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