Recent Ohio inmate deaths demonstrate dangers of drug, alcohol withdrawal in jail

Jailers have to be especially alert to those with drug or alcohol dependencies. Stopping cold turkey is hard and potentially deadly


Dean Narciso
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

DELAWARE COUNTY, Ohio — Inmates can bring a lot of baggage through the jailhouse door — behavioral issues, contraband, addictions.

Jailers have to be especially alert to those with drug or alcohol dependencies. Stopping cold turkey is hard and potentially deadly.

Two recent examples illustrate the potential dangers.

Delaware County sheriff's officials are investigating the death of Edward Michael Sullivan, 46, of Ashley, who was found unresponsive at 3:30 a.m. March 8 on the floor of his cell, beside his bed.

Despite 30 minutes of effort to revive him, Sullivan died. He had been at the Delaware County jail just 31 hours and was on a medical protocol for addiction, in part because of a history of drug offenses, said Tracey Whited, a sheriff's office spokeswoman. "We feel pretty confident that there were no red flags ... that there was nothing more that we could have done."

The day before Sullivan died, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed against officials in Logan County in connection with the June 15 death of Ricky Lee Burris, who had been strapped to a restraint chair in the Logan County jail while suffering from severe withdrawal from alcohol.

The lawsuit alleges that he received inadequate treatment and that alcohol withdrawal is a well-known problem at the Bellefontaine jail. The lawsuit notes that another inmate died of similar circumstances in 2002.

"Alcohol withdrawal is dangerous. Most jails can safely treat the symptoms, and those inmates survive," said Al Gerhardstein, lead attorney in the lawsuit. "Two deaths from such a foreseeable problem in one jail is outrageous and inexcusable. My fear is that many more inmates unnecessarily suffer from withdrawal in that jail and risk death every day."

The cases, though different, illustrate the importance of jails having trained medical professionals and protocols.

The Bureau of Adult Detention, an arm of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, oversees county jails, requiring a "health authority" to oversee their medical practices.

But the bureau does not track the manner or cause of deaths, said JoEllen Smith, DRC spokeswoman. So there are no data on withdrawal deaths.

The state also requires health authorities to develop policies and protocols dealing with intoxication and detoxification.

But the health authority has discretion over their protocol, including how frequently inmates are checked, according to the state.

At the Licking County jail in Newark, all inmates are checked every 30 minutes. Several times a week, inmates come in high, often on a variety or combination of powerful drugs.

"We're seeing more of it, and seeing people staying higher longer," said Capt. Chris Barbuto of the Licking County sheriff's office. "Whatever they're finding, they're keeping it in their system longer."

Compounding the problem, some inmates lie about their drug use.

At the Tri-County Regional Jail in Mechanicsburg in Union County, suspected drug users undergo an evaluation by medical staff and might be isolated if determined to be a risk to themselves or others.

"We also attempt, if the inmate is willing, to try and have them talk with a counselor with regard to substance abuse," said Scott E. Springhetti, jail director.

At the Delaware County jail, Sullivan was checked hourly, just like others in his dorm. Two days before his death, he was picked up on a bench warrant outside his home in Ashley, where he had been chopping wood, said Chief Deputy Jeff Balzer.

Officials are awaiting Sullivan's autopsy to determine the cause of death and any issues about his care.

Beginning April 1, Delaware County will replace its longtime contractor, Correctional Healthcare Companies, with Southern Health Partners. The change is unrelated to Sullivan's death, the county said. Neither contractor, nor Sullivan's relatives, returned calls for comment.

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©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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