by David M. Reutter
The death of a teenager is a sad event. But when it was entirely preventable, it becomes tragic.
The death of Victoria Jeanette Herr, 18, just four days after being booked into Pennsylvania’s Lebanon County Correctional Facility (LCCF), is yet another example of poor healthcare and deliberate indifference to prisoners’ medical needs.
Herr had recently graduated from high school and was described as a successful student and “an exceptionally talented artist.” Like many teens, she suffered from anxiety and turned to experimenting with drugs. Like many trapped in the current opioid epidemic, she tried prescription medications and became addicted; she then turned to a cheaper and more readily available drug: heroin.
Herr was taken into custody on March 27, 2015 when police went to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend to serve an outstanding arrest warrant against the boyfriend. The officers observed drug paraphernalia and heroin, which resulted in Herr’s arrest on controlled substance charges.
Upon her arrival at LCCC, Herr informed guard Michael Gerstner that she was addicted to heroin and using up to 10 doses daily. He ordered her placed on 30-minute “withdrawal” cell checks. By the next day, Herr was experiencing repeated bouts of vomiting and near-constant diarrhea, which resulted in guards forcing her to wear adult diapers. She reported that she was experiencing hallucinations, and exhibited symptoms of dehydration. Yet nurses who saw her failed to conduct an examination or render care.
During a phone call to her mother on March 30, Herr said she was thirsty and felt like she was dying. Her parents visited the jail but were not allowed to see their daughter; guards and a nurse informed them that she was “fine.” By the next afternoon, however, Herr was “barely conscious.” A nurse gave her Ensure and a glass of water, and sent her back to her cell.
Later in the evening of March 31, 2015, Herr could barely stand and fell in the medical unit. Guards insisted she was faking. After being ordered back to her cell by the nursing staff, Herr fell unconscious and quit breathing. Guards did not render CPR; Herr was revived in an ambulance but never recovered consciousness. She died on April 5, 2015.
A cover-up was already in process. Nurse Heather Phipps entered a note into Herr’s medical file on April 1, saying Herr was able to take pills and drink Ensure without difficulty, which was not possible given her condition at the time. A mortality review was not conducted, and guards and medical staff refused to respond to an inquiry by a coroner’s investigative team. During a deposition a nurse said she took Herr’s vital signs, but a guard refuted that claim.
As PLN has chronicled, many people die in jails due to not receiving treatment for drug and alcohol withdrawal. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.38]. It is well known that without proper medical care, withdrawal symptoms can be fatal. While LCCC denied culpability, it agreed in October 2018 to pay $4.75 million to settle a wrongful death suit filed by Herr’s family.
“It’s certainly one of the largest settlements in at least the last ten years involving the death of a prisoner in civil rights litigation,” said Jonathan Feinberg, one of the attorneys who represented Herr’s estate.
More settlements of this size may cause corrections officials to reconsider how they treat prisoners suffering from withdrawal, and to provide them the medical care they need. See: Moyer v. Lebanon County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01424-RDM.
Additional source: ldnews.com
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Related legal case
Moyer v. Lebanon County
|U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01424-RDM