Jail Death Due to Alcohol Withdrawal: An Avoidable Tragedy

Alcoholism is a disease, and jail deaths due to alcohol withdrawal are all too common but entirely avoidable.

In the United States, approximately 1 out of every 12 adults is alcohol dependent. Alcohol dependence does not just mean that someone likes to drink alcohol or has difficulty resisting temptation. Rather, a person who is truly dependent on alcohol has a physical addiction. An alcohol-dependent person has a brain chemistry that has altered to the point that it operates properly only in the presence of alcohol. In a true alcoholic, the brain and nervous system literally need alcohol to function. Cut alcohol off entirely, and all at once, and what happens? The brain fails to operate correctly and the person goes into alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can be an extremely serious and potentially fatal medical condition.  As explained below, alcohol withdrawal deaths in jail occur unnecessarily but far too commonly.

Without alcohol, a dependent individual will typically develop withdrawal symptoms within 6 to 12 hours. These can include shaky hands, sweating, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, headache and insomnia. Over time, lack of alcohol can result in increasingly worse symptoms, including auditory or visual hallucinations, profuse sweating, irregular heartbeat, and severe tremors. Eventually, symptoms can include seizures and even death. Severe alcohol withdrawal is a medical emergency and “detoxing” without medical oversight can be very risky.

When an alcoholic person is arrested and taken to jail, he or she is immediately and suddenly cut off from alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can then develop, with its host of complications, leading up to, and including death. Jails, prisons and police lock-up facilities are supposed to recognize and respond to these signs and symptoms by properly screening incoming inmates for withdrawal and obtaining prompt and appropriate medical treatment for inmates at risk for alcohol withdrawal. With appropriate medical treatment, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be safely managed to avoid the most dangerous symptoms. Courts around the country have long recognized the danger of alcohol withdrawal in jail and require that jail personnel not deny medical care to people going through withdrawal or who are at risk of withdrawal.

All too often, however, jail personnel fail to follow the proper protocols. In the mid-2000s, Budge & Heipt handled a case against an Alaska correctional facility that failed to properly treat a young man for alcohol withdrawal. The man had self-reported to the jail to serve a short sentence. While there, he went into withdrawal. Although his symptoms were mild at first, they eventually progressed to full-blown delirium tremens. Unfortunately, jail personnel did not respond to his need for medical care. Several days after his admission to the jail, in the throes of full-blown alcohol withdrawal, he seized and died in his cell.

We pursued a claim on behalf of his mother for wrongful death due to alcohol withdrawal in jail. Working with top experts in the field, we were able to show that the jail’s response to his alcohol withdrawal was woefully inadequate. The State of Alaska agreed to pay more than half-a-million dollars to settle the case—an amount that exceeded the statutory limits available under Alaska law. Our case also led to policy changes that minimized the risks to alcohol dependent inmates in the future.

Erik Heipt is an experienced courtroom litigator, focusing on catastrophic injury or wrongful death in prison or jail or by police. He seeks justice for the families and victims of excessive force by police or while incarcerated. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.