An interesting article from this week’s issue of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly caught my eye today. On page 4 is the article, “Video of jail drug-withdrawal death leads to FBI inquiry.” This seized my attention, since I view the awful treatment of U.S. prisoners as one of our nation’s biggest moral failings. I get particularly agitated when patients enrolled in medication-assisted treatment for addiction are denied access to medical care.
This story is heart-wrenching.
In June of 2014, David Stojcevski , 32 years old, was jailed in the Macomb County, Michigan, jail for thirty days for failure to pay a traffic ticket. He was denied access to his usual medications; news sources said he was being prescribed methadone, Klonopin, and Xanax for the treatment of addiction. No mention was made of whether he was a patient of an opioid treatment program.
David died seventeen days into his thirty day sentence. His autopsy listed the cause of death as “Acute withdrawal from chronic benzodiazepine, methadone, and opiate medication,” and also mentioned seizures and dehydration as contributing factors.
A jail nurse, noting his medical condition upon intake to the jail, recommended he be sent to a medical detox unit, but her recommendations were not heeded. Instead, when Mr. Stojcevski began behaving in unusual ways, he was sent to a mental health cell, where he was monitored with video around the clock. He was supposed to have personnel checking on him every fifteen minutes. Apparently his withdrawal symptoms were so severe he declined meals and lost 50 pounds within these eleven days. He had what appear to be seizures as he lay on the jail floor dying.
Understandably, David’s family was livid. In order to illustrate the jail’s indifference to their son’s suffering, they posted all 240 hours of the video monitoring on the internet, where it went viral. David’s family is seeking to change the way prisoners on medications are treated, to avoid senseless deaths like David’s. They have also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and against Correct Care Solutions, the company which was supposed to have provided medical care to prisoners in the county jail.
I have often heard my patients describe the callous indifference jailers have toward them as they withdrawal from legally prescribed medication, but it’s quite another thing to actually watch this man die slowly. I only saw a few clips from the local news program above, and was horrified. It does not take any medical knowledge to see how this man was suffering. He became thinner, wasn’t eating, and didn’t get off the jail floor for the last two days of his life. At the very end, he has some agonal respirations, what looks to me like seizure activity, and then becomes still.
Then jail personnel crowd into his cell.
Too little, too late. He’s already dead and can’t be revived.
Some of the frames were televised on the area’s local news segment and can be seen here: http://www.clickondetroit.com/news/man-jailed-for-ticket-dies-in-custody/35452790
Be warned this segment is not for the faint of heart.
This man died from a treatable condition, opioid and benzodiazepine withdrawal.
An addiction expert interviewed by the area’s local television statement called the treatment of this man “unconscionable.”
I could quibble about the appropriateness of prescribing two benzodiazepines to a person with addiction in the first place, but since that’s not the point of this blog post, that’s all I’ll say about that.
Just yesterday, local TV news said the ACLU had filed a request for a formal Justice Department investigation of the Macomb County jail, saying prisoners are having their civil rights violated by the actions at the jail. The ACLU has also asked for an investigation into the judge’s decision to imprison David after he was unable to pay his traffic ticket, creating what was in essence a “debtor’s prison.”
A representative of the ACLU said anyone watching the video could deduce there was “Something systemically wrong at the Macomb County Jail.”
Recently, the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. contacted the FBI, asking them to investigate this case for evidence of criminal behavior on the part of Macomb County jail staff.
Macomb County officials steadfastly maintain they did nothing wrong, have nothing to hide, and welcome investigations into David Stojcevski’s death.
What I saw on this video clip appears criminal to me. The neglect, the reckless disregard for the wellbeing of another human is a far more serious crime than David’s traffic ticket. Every person who worked in that jail who turned a blind eye to the dying man belongs on the other side of the bars.
I am grateful to David’s family for their decision to post this painful video. That had to be a hard decision, but David’s graphic suffering causes more impact than written descriptions. I wonder if the ACLU, Justice Department, and FBI would have gotten involved had his family not publicized David’s gradual death, and had it not gone viral.
This behavior on the part of law enforcement is stupid, inhumane, and egregious. Do these law enforcement personnel have no shame, no basic human decency? Are we in a third world country where prisoners have no rights?
I will follow this story and give updates when possible.
I’d love to see the FBI investigate, and I hope criminal charges are filed. I hope the family sues and wins millions of dollars. I hope something can finally change in county jails across the nation, so that people who are incarcerated are no longer denied medical care.