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$10 Million Class-action Lawsuit Against Virginia Jail Results in $725,000 Settlement

by R. Bailey

A class-action complaint against the Central Virginia Regional Jail (CVRJ) has ended with a $725,000 settlement. The lawsuit alleged that jail staff violated detainees’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and subjected them to excessive pain and suffering by refusing to enforce written policies and placing cost savings above the provision of proper medical care.

Sherry Lynn Thornhill filed the complaint, which sought $10 million in damages, following the August 9, 2014 death of her son, Shawn Christopher Berry, 37. Berry had been arrested two days earlier on charges of contracting without a license, financial exploitation, possession of heroin with intent to distribute and failure to appear.

Berry and his girlfriend both advised CVRJ staff of his daily use of heroin and consumption of a fifth of liquor. He also disclosed that he had a history of withdrawal that led to a hospital stay during his last incarceration.

Despite those disclosures, when Berry began going through withdrawal and started vomiting and experiencing stomach pain during his first day at the jail, CVRJ staff refused to follow written policies and procedures for medical treatment.

The policies required staff to conduct a Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment (CIWA), contact a doctor, implement the heroin withdrawal protocol, administer Ativan, Phenobarbital, Clonidine or beta-blockers, and arrange transport to a hospital.

A former EMT at the jail reported that these crucial procedures were not enforced due to the costs involved, and “the general attitude at CVRJ was that prisoners were scum, and they were treated as such.”

Berry’s arraignment was postponed because of his vomiting, yet no withdrawal protocol was initiated. Even as his condition grew worse and he became confused and disoriented, developed diarrhea, threw up blood, became non-ambulatory, fell due to seizures and even bled from his nose and mouth, jail staff only offered him Gatorade and the prison cure-all, Ibuprofen. He died with a guard rubbing his feet as he bled out due to untreated withdrawal symptoms.

Thornhill’s lawsuit also cited incidents where other detainees were subjected to deliberate indifference and inhumane conditions.

For example, prescribed psychotropic medications were deliberately withheld from prisoner Victoria Jenkins just two months after Berry died. While written policies required that she receive treatment, and Jenkins’ outside doctor personally called the jail to demand continued mental health care, none was provided until Jenkins suffered a serious breakdown and a court had to intervene, ordering CVRJ to give her treatment.

The lawsuit cited another prisoner who suffered from Crohn’s disease. CVRJ staff forced him to use Ibuprofen despite its damaging effects, and when he complained, guards assaulted him and left him with untreated rectal bleeding.

Thornhill’s class-action suit further alleged that CVRJ Superintendent F. Glenn Aylor not only abandoned the jail’s written policies for unwritten ones to reduce costs, but also falsely reported that staff members were unaware of Berry’s pre-existing medical condition. He also coldly told Berry’s aunt that this wasn’t her nephew’s “first rodeo,” and informed reporters he “could care less how the public feels” about his response to Berry’s death.

Aylor resigned as CVRJ’s superintendent in early 2016. Asked whether he was stepping down as a result of prisoner deaths at the jail, he responded, “It ain’t got nothing to do with nothing.” A $725,000 settlement in the class-action case was reached in December 2017. See: Thornhill v. Aylor, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00024-GEC. 

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Related legal case

Thornhill v. Aylor