By SARAH KLEINER AND K. BURNELL EVANS | Richmond Times-Dispatch | December 1, 2016, 10:30 PM
A Petersburg man was treated for the wrong medical condition and then died after jailers strapped him to a restraint chair at the Richmond City Justice Center in January, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court.
Gregory Lee Hill, 26, told medical staff members at the jail that he was addicted to Xanax, but a nurse wrote on medical forms that he was addicted to opiates instead, according to the lawsuit.
Withdrawing from the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and other benzodiazepines can be lethal without the right treatment, while opiate withdrawal typically is not, according to the lawsuit.
At the time of Hill’s death, jail officials said they believed he died of a heart attack.
Hill was the first of at least 37 Virginia jail inmates who have died so far in 2016.
Questions about inmate health care and the oversight of jails are expected to be addressed when the General Assembly convenes in January.
The Richmond Police Department is investigating Hill’s death, according to the lawsuit. A police spokesperson could not be reached late Thursday afternoon to confirm the investigation.
Brenda Hill Myrick, Hill’s mother, is seeking $20.4 million from 23 defendants: NaphCare, the company that contracts with the jail to provide medical care to inmates; 11 NaphCare employees; Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr., the jail’s top administrator; and 10 of his corrections officers.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Richmond division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. It was filed by Richmond attorney Mark Krudys, who declined to comment for this story.
Tony Pham, general counsel for the Richmond sheriff’s office, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because the jail had not received it as of late Thursday afternoon.
Hill, who died Jan. 9, was arrested Jan. 5 in Petersburg on charges of malicious wounding and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
According to the lawsuit, Hill began experiencing symptoms associated with Xanax withdrawal, which include tremors, irritability, increased anxiety, panic attacks, sweating, confusion, hallucinations and psychosis.
Hill began making statements that did not make sense, but deputies did not initially contact the jail’s medical staff, according to the suit.
“When deputies finally determined to take Mr. Hill to the medical department, deputies characterized Mr. Hill as resisting, and they physically restrained him and sprayed him with pepper spray,” the suit says.
NaphCare workers told the jail’s staff that he needed to be taken to the hospital, according to the lawsuit. Instead, jailers took him away from the medical pod and strapped him into an “emergency restraint chair.”
Limited video footage available showed Hill complying with deputies as they walked him to the chair, according to the lawsuit. He was sweating heavily and disheveled.
Corrections officers called for NaphCare employees the evening of Jan. 9 because Hill was unresponsive.
Emergency medical responders were called to the scene and they attempted to resuscitate Hill, according to the suit. He was transported to VCU Medical Center in cardiac arrest. He was declared dead seven minutes after arriving.
Jail officials and NaphCare declined to provide Hill’s medical records to the medical examiner and gave limited reports and video footage to the Richmond Police Department, according to the suit.
The medical examiner said Hill died of unknown causes, according to the lawsuit. A spokesperson with the medical examiner’s office in Richmond did not respond to a request for information from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Thursday afternoon.
Hill was one of at least 230 inmates who have died in Virginia jails since 2011. That total does not include deaths at state or federal prisons.
Four other men have died at the Richmond City Justice Center since Hill: Kenard Leshawn Hines in February, Darrell Jerome Ross in March, Rashad Antonio Dandridge in June and Walter Rodney Woodard in September, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
According to court records, several inmates have settled lawsuits against the Richmond jail and its administrators in the past five years — especially those who were incarcerated in the old facility, which lacked air conditioning. The new jail, which is air conditioned, started accepting inmates in mid-2014.
The lawsuit from Hill’s mother comes as Virginia lawmakers grapple with how best to boost oversight of the state’s largely self-policed local and regional jail facilities.
Although jails must report inmate deaths to the Department of Corrections, facilities are not required to release the results of their own internal investigations of those deaths to the public.
Most jails are run either by an elected sheriff or a superintendent who serves at the pleasure of a regional board.
The panel of citizens appointed by the governor to oversee local and regional jails did not — until last month — begin receiving notification of inmate deaths and other critical incidents at facilities.
Although some jail leaders invite local law enforcement agencies or Virginia State Police to review fatalities, state Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, has said those investigations are not designed to address a gray area laid bare by the case of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old man who died in August 2015 of complications from wasting syndrome, according to the state medical examiner’s office.
Mitchell, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, lost 46 pounds over 101 days at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. He had been arrested after allegedly stealing $5 worth of snack food from a convenience store near his home in Portsmouth.
Mitchell’s case and many others that have wound their way through state and federal courts raise questions about a jail’s obligation to provide inmates with adequate medical care.
At least five agencies reviewed Mitchell’s death, but none was able to reach a conclusion about how a physically healthy but mentally ill man was allowed to waste away in plain sight.
The jail cleared itself of wrongdoing in an internal investigation but declined to release the report to the public. State police continue to look into Mitchell’s death.
Jail officials have said the Hampton Roads facility handles the region’s most medically complicated cases and — like correctional facilities across the state — is not the right place for those with severe mental illness.
Bell has said authority to ask difficult questions about how jails should be caring for inmates, and in particular those with mental illness, must rest with an independent third party.
Possibilities on the table are the state’s top watchdog — the Office of the State Inspector General — or the Board of Corrections. Law enforcement agencies have supported moving additional oversight responsibility to the board, but board members have voiced concerns about the body’s ability to manage that degree of oversight.
In the interim, families such as Hill’s and Mitchell’s continue to seek legal recourse.
Krudys, the attorney who filed Thursday’s suit, also is representing Mitchell’s family in a $60 million lawsuit filed in federal court in May, and the family of Henry Stewart, a 60-year-old inmate at Hampton Roads Regional Jail who died two days after his written request for emergency medical help in August was denied. A lawsuit in Stewart’s case has not been filed.