Politics

As drug overdose deaths continue to climb in Kentucky, the Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments over whether jail officials in Russell County were negligent in the care of an inmate who died of a drug overdose in her detox cell.

A lawsuit from the estate of Peggy McWhorter alleges that in 2011, deputy jailers didn’t follow policies requiring them to check if inmates are on drugs when they are booked and monitor inmates periodically.

McWhorter died of a hydrocodone overdose during the first night of a weekend stint in jail for a drug-related DUI conviction.

Corey Ann Finn, who’s representing McWhorter’s estate, argues that if staff had completed more frequent or thorough checks of McWhorter they would have been able to save her life.

“It’s a long, slow suffocation and it’s a long process where someone’s breathing changes over time,” Finn said of McWhorter’s overdose.

“Those were the clues that if Peggy had had live, in-person, inside her cell checks as the policy required, those are some things that deputy jailers would have noticed.”

Jail officials say they didn’t know that McWhorter was on drugs and that she was put in a detox cell because that’s where they normally put inmates serving time on weekends.

Inmates who are suspected to be on drugs are supposed to have in-person assessments every twenty minutes.

Jail staff did check on McWhorter and her two cellmates every hour and noted loud snoring coming from McWhorter, but Finn said the checks weren’t thorough enough.

“When you look at the jail video, when she is put in her cell at about 6:30 [p.m.], she lays down and an arm flops out to the side about an hour later. And that is the exact same position that she is found in at 6:10 a.m. when she is found to be dead,” Finn said on Thursday.

Stacey Blankenship, an attorney representing the jail officials, argued that it’s not practical for staff to have in-depth monitoring of all inmates.

“The Department of Corrections has never trained these deputy jailers to say you need to memorize how these inmates are laying. And you’re talking about a jail that had 80 inmates,” Blankenship said. “You’re talking about thousands of inmates across the state that they are supposed to memorize their movements throughout the night.”

Blankenship argued that there was no evidence in the case that McWhorter could have been saved if jailers had found out she was overdosing.

“The jail does not have naloxone there. You can’t use a tool that you don’t have,” Blankenship said.

Naloxone is a drug that can reverse drug overdoses.

Justice Michelle Keller questioned that argument.

“They wouldn’t have found her out and maybe still alive but barely and just said ‘Well we don’t have anything we can do’ and just left the cell would they have? I mean they would have called 911, or something would have happened,” Keller said.

A new report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy found that 1,565 people died from drug overdoses in Kentucky last year, up 11.5 percent from 2016.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.