Jail Deaths From Alcohol And Drug Withdrawal: The Importance Of Policies, Procedures, And Protocols

Death from alcohol or drug withdrawal in jail is often entirely preventable.  When a person who is dependent on alcohol is forced to go “cold turkey” in jail without appropriate medical treatment, the resulting withdrawal symptoms can be deadly.  The same is true for certain kinds of drug withdrawal.  In particular, withdrawal from prescription benzodiazepines, such as Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam) and Valium (diazepam), can be life-threatening.

All reasonable health care providers, including those working in the field of corrections, need to be familiar with the dangers of withdrawal from alcohol and certain drugs such as those listed above.  Upon admission to any correctional facility, it is essential that providers identify any person who may be dependent upon alcohol or a benzodiazepine in order to prevent serious complications and/or death that might result from withdrawal. Due to the extraordinary risks associated with alcohol withdrawal or certain forms of drug withdrawal, it is essential that medical personnel properly identify any incoming inmate or detainee who may be at risk.  Once the risk is identified, certain protocols should generally be followed.  In particular, there should be close medical monitoring in an appropriate setting to identify withdrawal symptoms and respond appropriately if such withdrawal symptoms appear.  In the case of alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal, it is often necessary to treat withdrawal symptoms with substitute benzodiazepine medications.  And if the withdrawal symptoms become significant, medical personnel should arrange for the person to be evaluated by a trained professional and, if necessary, be taken to a hospital for medical treatment and/or continued monitoring.

The attorneys at Budge & Heipt focus on wrongful death cases from alcohol withdrawal and withdrawal from certain drugs in jail.  When we accept such a case, one of the important things we do is to demand that the jail (or its contract medical provider) produce copies of any internal policies, procedures and protocols on the subject of alcohol or drug withdrawal.  Getting copies of all these documents serves at least two important purposes.  First, comparing the policies, procedures and protocols to what actually occurred in a particular case can help determine whether or not the relevant standards were followed.  In order to establish a constitutional violation for a wrongful death in jail, it is necessary to show that jail personnel were “deliberately indifferent” to a known serious medical need.  A violation of policies, procedures or protocols can help us meet this standard of proof.  Second, the absence of reasonable policies, procedures and protocols can be important to know.  When a jail (or its contract medical provider) fails to institute reasonable policies, procedures or protocols for the identification and handling of alcohol or drug withdrawal, this fact in and of itself can establish that the municipality operating the jail (or its contract medical provider) was deliberately indifferent to the known risks.

Getting these policies, procedures and protocols is one of several important steps we undertake at the outset of the case.  Generally speaking, defendants in wrongful death cases from alcohol or drug withdrawal will be required to turn these materials over as part of the court’s mandatory discovery process.

If a loved one has died in jail, and you suspect that alcohol or drug withdrawal may be involved, please contact our offices for a free consultation.  When such deaths take place, they must be investigated to determine whether it appears a constitutional violation has occurred.  Gathering relevant governing documents is part of the investigative process.  By seeking justice in individual cases, the system as a whole can be improved, and the risk of future similar deaths can be reduced.

Please contact Budge & Heipt to discuss your case. There is no cost or obligation to do so. Call us today at 206.624.3060.

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.