At Mother Jones, Julia Lurie reports on a rising trend: death by opioid withdrawal in jail. Read about how addict shame and silence, jail short-staffing, scant medical equipment, and a general apathy toward inmates make a deadly combination.
When Tyler Tabor was booked in a jail outside Denver on a spring afternoon in 2015, he told a screening nurse that he was a daily heroin user and had a prescription for Xanax. A friendly, outdoorsy 25-year-old with a son in kindergarten, Tabor had started using opioids after he injured his back on the job as a welder. When he was arrested on two misdemeanor warrants, his parents decided not to pay his $300 bail, thinking he would be safer in jail and away from heroin for a few days.
Three days later, Tabor died of dehydration at the Adams County jail, according to a coroner’s report. The alleged cause: drug withdrawal.
During the evening shift at the Brown County jail in Green Bay, Wisconsin, there is one nurse—and no other medical staff—for roughly 700 inmates, according to nurses who worked at the facility. “I had people detoxing, I had people with chest pain, I had people getting into fights, I had emergencies where people aren’t breathing,” said Abby, who worked at the facility for nine months before leaving last fall. “I can’t assess somebody three times a shift when there’s one nurse for 700 inmates, and do a meaningful assessment, and also provide interventions when I have 20 people on opiate withdrawal.”
Abby says she bought her own medical supplies because the blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, and stethoscopes provided by CCS didn’t always work. She often found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place: There was no IV therapy in the jail, but sending inmates to the hospital was frowned upon. In order to send a withdrawal patient to the hospital, she said, the inmate would “need to be at the point where their vital signs were dropping, their internal organs were starting to become compromised.”