Inmate said to be going through opioid withdrawal dies in Bucks prison

Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown. (buckscounty.org)

Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown. (buckscounty.org)

A Bucks County Correctional Facility inmate died in custody last weekend.

While that’s unusual — just nine inmates have died behind bars at the lockup in Doylestown Township since 2006 — it was the circumstances of his death that made a social media post about it go viral.

Frederick Adami was going through opiate withdrawal and “was throwing up and and going to the bathroom ALL night non stop,” a woman who said she was his cellmate’s girlfriend wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared more than 1,000 times.

But though Adami’s cellmate repeatedly alerted guards that Adami needed immediate medical care, Melissa Weitzel wrote, the guards ignored him for hours. By 6:30 a.m. Sunday, the guards found Adami, 52, dead in the cell. After removing the body, the guards tossed his cellmate gloves and made him clean up the bloody vomit and diarrhea that covered the floor, Weitzel wrote.

“Addict or not, this man was supposed to be in a safe place, where he should have been treated for his withdrawal symptoms, at the least dehydration, which is deadly if untreated,” she wrote. “There is no doubt Bucks will try to cover this up, and they will probably throw my boyfriend in the hole to silence him. However they can’t and won’t silence us. Death by neglect is murder.”

Bucks County officials had little to say about the death this week, beyond the basics.

“All we’re confirming right now is the death. The coroner is conducting an autopsy, and there’s an investigation going on right now,” said Chris Edwards, a county spokesman, who wouldn’t comment on the social media hubbub or even the prison’s general policies on how it handles inmates with addiction issues.

PrimeCare Medical Inc. is the Harrisburg-based company the county pays $4.2 million a year to handle inmates’ medical and mental health needs, Edwards said. The company did not return a call for comment.

Adami was picked up in Bensalem Township about 3 a.m. Saturday after an officer on routine patrol spotted him sleeping in his car in the parking lot of the Wawa on Bristol Pike, said Frederick Harran, Bensalem’s director of public safety.

The officer discovered that Adami had an open warrant for failing to pay child support, as well as a baggie of suspected heroin in his car, Harran said. So the officer arrested him and took him to the prison, which Edwards said on an average day houses about 840 inmates.

Adami would have had to go to court Monday to explain to a judge why he wasn’t paying court-ordered support, said Larry King, a spokesman for the Bucks County district attorney’s office. And he would have faced drug-possession charges, if tests confirmed the substance in baggie was heroin, Harran said.

Instead, he was in the county morgue. County Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell hasn’t issued a ruling on the cause of death and didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Spate of wrongful-death suits

Inmates’ addiction struggles have become a growing challenge for jails and prisons nationally.

Sometimes, they have turned deadly.

That can be costly for authorities who then face wrongful-death lawsuits.

In fact, Bucks County has been through this at least twice: In September 2013, inmate  Vallia Valene Karaharisis, 29, died at the Bucks County Correctional Facility three days after she was jailed for violating probation in a credit-card fraud case.

Karaharisis told a prison nurse that she was a heavy user of heroin who injected up to 20 bags of heroin a day, according to a lawsuit her mother later filed against the county and PrimeCare.

Still, staffers failed to closely monitor Karaharisis, even though she could no longer eat or drink, the lawsuit claimed. Instead, the correctional and medical staff regularly assigned inmates to serve as “baby-sitters” to monitor other inmates undergoing detoxification, according to the complaint.

The case ended in a confidential settlement.

And in March 2014, a detoxing inmate named Marlene Yarnall, 49, of Bensalem, died of a withdrawal-related heart attack, three days after landing behind bars. That case resulted in a wrongful-death lawsuit too.

No one should die from heroin withdrawal in prison, said attorney Jonathan H. Feinberg, who represented Karaharisis’ mother.

“Everyone in the criminal justice system at this point, in January of 2018, ought to be aware, from recent experience and experience dating back years, that opiate withdrawal can lead to serious health consequences and death,” Feinberg said. “This is not a complicated medical issue. Everyone knows that if you have prolonged vomiting and diarrhea, that causes dehydration, and dehydration can be deadly. You don’t need to go to medical school to understand this.”

Feinberg also has filed wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of the families of Victoria Herr, 18, an inmate who died in April 2015 in Lebanon County Correctional Facility of withdrawal-related issues, and Daniel Wichterman, 29, who died of an opiate overdose in January 2015, eight hours after Philadelphia police put him behind bars at the Police Detention Unit in Center City.

Nationally, two-thirds of jail inmates ages 18 to 24 use drugs, according to a recent federal study.

In Philadelphia, three-quarters of the 28,000 people who spent some time in the city’s six prisons last year had a history of substance abuse, according to city officials.

Attorney Robert Lynch represents the family of Edward Zaleski, an inmate who died of an accidental drug overdose a few hours after police took him to Philly’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility for skipping a court hearing related to a shoplifting case.

“It’s so prevalent, so well-known, so documented, the horrific side effects and withdrawal symptoms of using opioids,” Lynch said. “How can they turn their backs on people who have no ability to get their own medical care when they’re in custody?”

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