OCONEE COUNTY, S.C. (WSPA) – The Oconee County Detention Center is facing a lawsuit after an inmate died in custody.
The lawsuit filed earlier this month claims the jail could have prevented the death if they had better treatment policies for alcoholism.
Deputies booked Ernest Smalley, Jr. into the detention center on October 23, 2015 for a family court bench warrant.
“He went in as an alcoholic,” Attorney Fletcher Smith, who’s representing the lawsuit, said.
The policies in place at the Oconee County Detention Center say an officer is supposed to make an initial visual observation of an inmate’s mental or physical condition. However, Rich Jones, with the recovery center FAVOR Greenville says signs aren’t always immediately apparent with alcoholism.
“We hear the stories every day about winding up in jail and withdrawing,” Jones said.
It is also the jail’s policy to strictly observe people they believe to be detoxing. The SLED report says there is seven hours of video showing officers observing Smalley.
However, the problem the lawsuit points out is that documents from the jail show Smalley wasn’t treated for withdrawals until October 25th. The lawsuit says Smalley asked to go to the hospital but was denied. It also says the jail did not keep proper records of his condition.
“It was only when he started dying, or in the throes of his final hours here on earth, that they started doing anything appropriately,” Smith said.
On October 26th, an officer noticed Smalley was unresponsive in his cell. That’s when the jail’s emergency protocol was put in place, and Smalley was taken to the hospital where he later died.
The Oconee County Coroner says Smalley died due to complications of delirium tremens and gastrointestinal hemorrhage because of chronic ethanolism, or alcoholism.
“They are not going to be subjected to a criminal penalty of death just because they’re in a jail for a minor infraction of the law,” Smith said.
Jones says alcohol is just one of two types of drugs where the withdrawal can be deadly.
“It’s not the type of thing that you can just stop cold turkey…It’s very dangerous,” Jones said.
Jones says there is a universal ranking system for detecting withdrawals that all health care professionals use. He says jails should consider using that method when people are booked and having a properly trained person make the initial observation. He says people also need to start recognizing alcoholism as a disease.
“If they did reflect that, this wouldn’t be an issue, this man would still be alive,” Jones said.
The State Law Enforcement Division investigated the case but closed it in January 2016 after finding no criminal wrongdoing.
7News did reach out to the Oconee County Detention Center, but officials say they cannot comment on pending litigation.