Heroin Withdrawal Prison Deaths Are A Growing Issue in the US

By Seth Ferranti 07/15/16

As the heroin epidemic rages on, what will it take for all prisons to adopt detox protocol for prisoners with substance use issues?

Heroin Withdrawal Prison Deaths Are A Growing Issue in the US

On March 27, Victoria "Tori" Herr, an 18-year-old heroin addict was admitted to Lebanon County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. Five days later, she was dead. Herr is a poster child of the new trend sweeping our nation's prisons—dying by detox. Arrested and held in prison with no regard for her heroin habit, she told intake officers she had a 10-bag-a-day habit, but they had no concern for her impending withdrawal. Everyone knows about “going cold turkey,” but how many imprisoned drug users are sentenced to death when they are sentenced to prison?

Surprisingly, there’s been upwards of a half-dozen cases of jail heroin withdrawal death in the last couple of years—an unthinkable number, when getting off heroin is a completely manageable (though trying) condition that is not life-threatening when treated with medication, monitoring and, if needed, IV fluids. But when the jail staff don’t care and they just throw you in a cell regardless of what you told them in intake, death can result. Going through withdrawals can get very serious very quick, especially when you are locked in a cell with no care and no access to anything.

“When I first got locked up, I was going through withdrawals in county jail in Pittsburgh,” Judge, a recovering addict from Pennsylvania doing 18 years in federal prison for a bank robbery, tells The Fix. “It was one of the roughest spells I ever had. Shaking, shitting, vomiting and just being plain miserable for like five days. But I got through it, no thanks to the staff at the prison. I went to the nurse but she laughed at me. I was lucky some of my fellow inmates knew the drill and took care of me and bought me food and fluids.”

Tori’s mother, Stephanie Moyer, just recently filed a lawsuit against Lebanon County Correctional Facility, who ruled that Tori’s demise was accidental, for wrongful death. "This is a woman who died because she was detoxing," said Moyer's lawyer, Jonathan Feinberg. "Had Tori Herr's withdrawal been treated she almost certainly would be alive today."

Progress is slowly coming. There are now around 100 Vivitrol programs in prisons in 30 states across America. These programs give heroin addicts a monthly injection of Vivitrol to curb heroin cravings. But 100 programs is not nearly enough. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 65% of the nation’s inmates meeting the criteria for substance abuse and addiction, but only 11% received treatment for their addictions.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.