“Yeah, I’m very ill right now,” Linsenmeir told him. “I can’t even think straight. I’m gonna literally pass out from pain.”
Linsenmeir, who had struggled with opioid addiction for her entire adult life, told the officers she thought she needed to go to the hospital. But despite her pleas, the only place Linsenmeir would be going was a jail cell, according to a federal lawsuit recently filed by her family. Once transferred to the county jail, she would again plead for medical help — and would again be denied treatment, until she was found unresponsive in her cell six days after her arrest.
Linsenmeir died in the hospital of a heart infection on Oct. 7, 2018 — one her family says was entirely treatable and preventable, if only the two jails would have gotten her help.
Linsenmeir’s family has now filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, the City of Springfield and several officers, alleging their indifference to her repeated cries for help and medical attention led to her death. In the days before she died, jail staff at the women’s correctional center told Linsenmeir her pain was “her own fault for using drugs,” according to the lawsuit, filed March 5 in Massachusetts.
Linsenmeir suffered from what her attorneys argue was a life-threatening but treatable heart valve infection called infective endocarditis, which carries a higher risk for people with a history of intravenous substance abuse, according to the lawsuit. Had Linsenmeir been taken to the hospital upon her arrival at the Springfield Police Department, then she would still be alive today, her family argues.
“The level of callousness that’s pervasive throughout the system in this case should be shocking to everyone,” Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, told The Washington Post. “This is someone who was begging for help, calling for help, and you can’t help but think that we’ve gotten to a place in our society where we’ve completely dehumanized people who are sick, who have substance-abuse disorder … to the extent that we’re willing to risk them dying.”
Prisoners’ Legal Services is joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and law firm Goulston & Storrs PC. The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department extended condolences to Linsenmeir’s family but said it could not comment on individual cases. A spokesman said in a statement that “we strive to provide the best healthcare services given the challenging circumstances of these individuals prior to them arriving in our custody.”
The Springfield Police Department could not be immediately reached for comment early Monday.
When Linsenmeir died in 2018, her death reverberated across the country. Linsenmeir’s sister, Kate O’Neill, had written candidly about Linsenmeir’s long struggle with opioid addiction in a viral obituary for Seven Days, Vermont’s alt-weekly. She described Linsenmeir as a remarkable performer and singer who loved swimming, skiing and being outdoors, who grew up in Vermont until moving to Florida in high school.
“Soon after, she tried OxyContin for the first time at a high school party, and so began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life,” O’Neill wrote.
Linsenmeir tried relentlessly to get sober, her sister said, especially after giving birth to a baby boy in 2014. But inevitably, “her addiction stalked her and stole her once again,” bringing her “to place of incredible darkness,” O’Neill wrote. In the months before her death, Linsenmeir had been arrested and sentenced to probation in New Hampshire on a drug charge. She had been sex-trafficked through Rhode Island, beaten, raped and burned on her face with cigarettes and on her feet with a curling iron, as O’Neill wrote in a separate story for Seven Days.
Suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and opioid addiction, Linsenmeir was undergoing rehab at a Vermont facility when she disappeared in August 2018. Her family didn’t know where she went, according to the lawsuit — until on Sept. 28, 2018, she sent desperate text messages to her mother and sister.
“I need to go to the hospital I am dying I weigh 90 pounds,” she wrote to her mother. “mom I need you.”
She told O’Neill she couldn’t eat or sleep, that her chest hurt and her knee was so swollen that she couldn’t walk.
But within a day, she was arrested.
“For the remainder of her life, Madelyn was in custody, at the mercy of her jailers’ decisions to provide or withhold medical care,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.
Surveillance video Linsenmeir pleading with the booking officers at the Springfield Police Department for medical attention, visibly in pain. They asked if she wanted her phone call and she said not right now, because she felt like she was going to pass out from the pain.
She spent the night at the jail before she was transferred to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in the custody of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department.
Because of her history of opioid and alcohol abuse, she was prescribed Librium, a drug commonly prescribed for alcohol withdrawal, as well as ibuprofen, ice and vitamin B as part of the jail’s detox protocol, according to the lawsuit.
The jail staff thought she was just “dope sick,” that she suffering through the detox, as Linsenmeir insisted it was something much worse, the suit claims. Linsenmeir repeatedly asked to see a doctor to no avail, and even her cellmates were petitioning the jail staff to get her help, according to the lawsuit.
“Medical staff did not treat Madelyn’s complaints of chest pain or difficulty breathing,” attorneys wrote in the suit. “They did not provide her with any treatment for her swollen knee and foot, despite her visible pain and difficulty while walking. Nor did they monitor her for the complications known to arise from opioid use. They did not even take her vital signs.”
On the morning of Oct. 4, 2018, jail medical staff found Linsenmeir in “severe distress” while evaluating a nearby inmate. She was “initially unresponsive” and could give only “incoherent” responses when they tried to speak to her. They called an ambulance.
Within hours of arriving at the hospital, Linsenmeir was diagnosed with the heart infection that was killing her. She was suffering from acute respiratory failure, and had lesions on her lungs.
Within a day, she was on a ventilator. Within three days, she was dead.
“Our family is heartbroken to have lost our beloved girl and deeply troubled by her unnecessary, preventable death,” Linsenmeir’s family said in a statement. “We fear for others in her situation and call on the City and the Sheriff’s Department to provide assurances that people currently in their custody are being treated humanely, with access to trained clinicians who can evaluate prisoners and provide appropriate medical care.”
Matos said she believes both agencies need to seriously rethink their training protocols for handling people struggling with addiction and showing visible signs of medical distress.
“These are our loved ones, these are our neighbors and our sisters and brothers,” Matos said. “That’s why I think this particular case is so powerful, because I think people can see that, and hopefully understand that she wasn’t the only one.”