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A drug-smuggling ring, retaliation and a coverup led to a prisoner’s death, lawsuit alleges

In a 135-year-old jail, inmates and health-care workers describe what it’s like treating opioid addiction behind bars (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Before 21-year-old Seth Zakora’s body was found lifeless in his bunk in 2017, his cellmate had warned guards that something was wrong. Zakora didn’t look well.

In the days leading up to Zakora’s illness, illicit drug overdoses sent two other prisoners at Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility to the hospital. By the time corrections officers checked in on him in the morning, Zakora’s body was stiff and covered head to toe in a sheet. Zakora’s family claims he died of an overdose of fentanyl, which they say flowed into the prison through a drug-smuggling ring run by the guards, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed last week. cover-up

The lawsuit claims state corrections officials failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the prison or care for prisoners vulnerable from opioid addiction. Its allegations capture the challenge that corrections facilities face as the opioid epidemic roils outside prison walls: How can they care for inmates with drug addiction while drugs remain as lucrative and in-demand in prisons as they are on the street?

“Whatever you can get on the outside, you can get on the inside, but it’s easier because you know it’s coming from the guards,” said Solomon Radner, the attorney representing Zakora’s estate.

Opioids killed more than 47,000 people in 2017 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their lethal nature doesn’t stop at prison doors. In California, which has the largest prison population, overdoses are up 113 percent over three years, with opioid-related deaths on the rise as well, according to an investigation earlier this year by the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Just one week after Zakora’s mother, Brandy, filed the lawsuit in Michigan, the family of a man who died of a fentanyl overdose while jailed in New Orleans filed a similar claim that alleged the jail staff’s failure to treat his addiction and stop the flow of illicit drugs violated his constitutional rights.

“When someone comes over and tells you something that sounds crazy, they laugh it off. But you hear it from 20 people … maybe you start to think, there’s something to it,” Radner told The Washington Post.

Radner said that even though the cases are widespread, the lawsuits are difficult to bring no matter how dramatic the allegations appear on paper; Zakora’s complaint includes claims of an affair between a guard and a prisoner that facilitated the drug smuggling and hints at a coverup by corrections officials.

“You need a perfect storm for a [lawsuit] like this. One, you need someone to have suffered. Second, you need someone, or their loved ones if they’re deceased, to care,” he said, noting that prisoners in the throes of addiction are unlikely to complain about the presence of illicit drugs. “[Third] is overcoming this rule that people don’t snitch — and that make[s] it particularity difficult to have not only inmates but guards come forward.”

Zakora’s lawsuit claims that drug smuggling is a well-known issue in Michigan Department of Corrections facilities and that efforts to flag it were met with retaliation against staff and prisoners. It cites two other facilities where claims of drug smuggling went without investigation and prisoners who confessed to taking part in the smuggling operations wound up dead in custody.

In the Lakeland facility, where Zakora died, drugs were “in abundance,” the lawsuit states, and were introduced into the prison through a smuggling ring that a female corrections officer allegedly orchestrated with the help of a prisoner she was having a relationship with. Even when another prisoner tried to alert investigators to the matter, going so far as to describe how the drugs were coming in and from whom, the state took no action, according to the complaint.

An investigation into drugs in the prison didn’t take place until after Zakora’s death; a drug-sniffing dog reportedly made “positive indications” for contraband, the lawsuit said.

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The MDOC did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post, but corrections spokesman Chris Gautz previously told the Detroit Free Press that while the department investigates all unexpected deaths in custody, Zakora’s death investigation was not available to the public because it is exempt from disclosure as part of an Internal Affairs report.

Gautz defended the work of corrections officers when it comes to addressing contraband drugs in state prison facilities, telling the paper, “They are trained, along with our medical staff, to assist prisoners who may be overdosing and have saved countless lives because of their diligent work. ”

Zakora’s death was the first overdose death at Lakeland in nearly 20 years, while 13 people have died from drug overdoses in MDOC facilities in the past decade, according to Gautz.

Several of the corrections officers named in the lawsuit knew Zakora “had involvement with the drugs,” the complaint said. Zakora, who was serving a sentence of three to 22 years for sexual assault when he died, “feared for his life and told his grandmother what was happening in the prison, how drugs were coming in from the outside, and how he was afraid he would not make it out alive,” the lawsuit said.

When Zakora left solitary confinement, two corrections officers allegedly told him “he had gotten himself into this mess,” in reference to Lakeland’s drug problem, “and now it was his problem to deal with. ”

The lawsuit further said it was unclear whether Zakora “intentionally took these drugs. ”

“There’s misconduct and corruption in the prison system and it happens at the highest level, and people are dying as a result,” Radner said.

Not everyone will see the struggles of prisoners seeking out illicit drugs or dying as a result of overdose as deserving of sympathy, let alone a problem that merits a public health response, acknowledged Jennifer Clarke, the medical programs director for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

“I think sometimes people think of [prisoners] as less than human,” Clarke said. “It’s important to remember that everyone who is in prison is someone’s child, brother or sister. The best thing for people with addiction is to make treatment available. ”

More than 20 percent of people in the MDOC system have opioid use disorder, according to information from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) office. In November, the state announced it would begin offering medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, in three MDOC facilities, with the goal of having MAT in all state prisons by 2023. Lakeland is not among the facilities in the pilot program.

“Anecdotally, some wardens say they feel contraband goes down when MAT is available,” Clarke said. Rhode Island’s corrections system is among the few to offer MAT in its unified prison and local jail system.

Clarke said MAT is important because being “drug free” isn’t the same as being in recovery.

“Even if someone is not currently using, think of it as someone who smokes and is in the hospital for a few weeks,” Clarke said. “They’re not cured from smoking; they still have a nicotine addiction. ”

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