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Seventh Circuit Holds Jail Guard Not Deliberately Indifferent to Illinois Prisoner’s Withdrawal from Smuggled Pills

by David M. Reutter

In a decision published on June 21, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held a guard was not deliberately indifferent to a prisoner’s symptoms of heroin withdrawal when the prisoner died from pills she smuggled into Illinois’ Champaign County Satellite Jail (CCSJ).

Tonya Frazier reported to CCSJ on November 30, 2015, to begin serving a 42-month sentence for felony theft. Frazier, 45, informed the booking officer that she was epileptic, subject to black-outs and fainting spells, had high blood pressure, a history of substance abuse, and had suffered a stroke recently, as well as undergoing knee surgery. She said she had used heroin the night before intake but was not then experiencing withdrawal.

The next afternoon, Frazier was assessed for withdrawal symptoms, but she exhibited none. She was strip searched and placed back in her holding cell. In the early morning hours of her second day of imprisonment, she began experiencing withdrawal symptoms and was moaning in her sleep from a stomachache. Guard Arnold Matthews moved her to another cell and asked that she be assessed for her symptoms.

A doctor ordered medication to treat those symptoms, and it was administered as prescribed. Frazier asked a nurse when the next dosage would be coming. She was told at the next medication rounds. An hour later, as video later showed, Frazer took pills out of her toiletry bag and ingested them. A half-hour after that, she had a seizure and stopped moving. She was found just over an hour later, taken to a hospital, and pronounced dead.

A coroner determined Frazier died 36 hours after her booking of “diphenhydramine toxicity due to or as a consequence of diphenhydramine misuse.” The pills Frazier ingested were later determined to be Advil PM, Aleve PM, or a combination of the two, both of which contain diphenhydramine. Neither had been given to her by CCSJ staff.

Aided by attorney Shayla L Maatuka of Maatuka Al-Heeti Emkes LLC in Champaign, Frazier’s estate—represented by Jaqueline Jones—filed suit in federal court for the Central District of Illinois, claiming Matthews was deliberately indifferent to her withdrawal symptoms, causing her death. But on August 9, 2019, the district court granted Matthew’s motion for summary judgement. The estate appealed.

Taking up the case, the Seventh Circuit noted that a successful deliberate-indifference claim first requires an objective finding that the prisoner suffered a malady that was “obvious,’ as well as a subjective finding that the guard was both “aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and that [he] actually drew the inference,”citing Orlowski v. Milwaukee Cnty., 872 F.3d 417 (7th Cir. 2017).

When Frazier began moaning, whether or not Matthews made or should have a made a connection between that fact and her recent heroin use, the Court said “there is no evidence from which a jury could reason-ably determine that Mathews knew that there was a substantial risk that Frazier would die of diphenhydramine toxicity from ingesting smuggled pills.”

Therefore, since “no reasonable jury could find that Mathews was aware of that risk … it follows that he could not have consciously disregarded [it].” So the Court concluded, “Jones’s deliberate indifference claim thus fails.” See: Jones v. Matthews, USCA (7th Cir.), Case No. 19-2629 (2021).

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Related legal case

Jones v. Matthews