The normalization of preventable jail deaths
On August 13th, corrections officers at Portland, Oregon’s jail found 37-year-old Dee Glassmann dead in her cell during their routine morning “wake up” call. If you’re wondering what happened, you’re not alone: Multnomah County officials won’t release any information about the circumstances of her death for up to eight more weeks, when her toxicology report will be completed. I know this because I called the medical examiner’s office, the Sheriff’s office, a mental healthcare provider that once worked with Glassmann, the county Board of Commissioners’ chair, and all four of the board’s district leaders.
Though it wound up being a futile day of phone calls, it was also a reminder of the ease with which the people funneled through our prisons and jails are anonymized and forgotten.
The straightest answer to my inquest came from the medical examiner’s office, which told me Glassmann’s toxicology report wouldn’t be completed for six to eight more weeks, and that no information would be publicly available before then. The rest of the calls were a mess of finger pointing. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office directed me to the medical examiner. The county health department directed me back to the sheriff. The county board members’ assistants diligently took messages from me, and suggested I call the jail. For fear of losing his job, a mental health worker would tell me nothing about his encounters with Glassmann. A member of the county’s communications office again suggested Sheriff Michael Reese. Not only did the cause of Glassmann’s death remain a mystery, none of the county officials seemed to have heard of her.
“What was the inmate’s name?” multiple people asked as they took messages for board members who never called back. “Can you spell that for me?”
Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, the county health department’s public information officer, did return my call. Glassmann’s death, she seemed to suggest, was just part of the business of running a jail.
“Twenty to thirty thousand people come through the jail every year, and some people unfortunately pass away,” said Sullivan-Springhetti. “All I can tell you is that Multnomah County doesn’t have a confirmed cause of death yet.”
Oh. Okay. Herding mostly low-level, nonviolent offenders through the corrections system like cattle just happens to cost some of their lives. “Of course it’s a tragedy for that person and that family,” Sullivan-Springhetti added.
The gaping holes in the story of Glassmann’s death might be disturbing, but a death behind bars is far from unusual in the U.S. Roughly 1,000 people die in jails every year, and many of those deaths are shrouded in secrecy. An investigation into the phenomenon of jail deaths by the Huffington Post found that at least one-third of those deaths occur within just three days of a person’s arrest or booking. Many of these deaths are preventable. The tragic, higher-profile deaths of people like Sandra Bland in Texas have brought some attention to the issue, but as Glassmann’s death shows, it’s still happening.
Though Glassmann was in jail for a burglary charge, records show previous arrests for heroin possession. A search through public posts she made on her Facebook page, now a “memorialized account,” reveal references to drug treatment, methadone, and hospitalization. Without any concrete answers about her death, these scraps of information suggest (but of course don’t prove) that like millions of other Americans, she may have struggled with opioid addiction.
As more people struggling with addiction become ensnared in the criminal justice system, withdrawal treatment in jail settings is more important than ever. Between 2014 and 2016, at least 20 lawsuits alleging that an inmate died in custody from opiate withdrawal complications were filed, according to Mother Jones. Withdrawal symptoms are notoriously brutal, but they can also be fatal if left untreated, and treatment in jails and prisons can be hard to come by.
On any day, roughly 630,000 people are detained in jails across the country, winding through an often haphazard system that is ill-equipped to handle the mental illnesses and addictions that accompany many members of the at-risk populations most likely to wind up behind bars. Unpreventable tragedies happen in these places, but so do avoidable deaths. For people like Glassmann, too many unanswered questions remain — and the response that “sometimes people unfortunately pass away” simply isn’t enough.