Morgan County Being Sued For Inmate Death in Custody

By Benjamin Cox on March 22, 2023 at 2:00pm

Family members of an inmate who died at the Morgan County Jail last spring have sued the Morgan County Detention Facility, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department, and the detention facility’s medical staff in federal court for wrongful death and a violation of civil rights.

In a 13-count complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois by Springfield attorney Richard D. Frazier on behalf of the family of Brian C. Downs, the family alleges that Morgan County Jail staff along with members of the Sheriff’s Department violated Down’s 14th Amendment Rights by not providing attention and medical care to Downs as he withdrew from heroin use.

Downs died at 1:57AM on April 25, 2022 at the Morgan County Detention Facility, according to an autopsy report. Downs had been arrested by Jacksonville Police at 1:43PM on April 22, 2022 at J.B. Hawks at 205 East Morton Avenue. The manager of the business had called police after Downs allegedly left a syringe in the business’ restroom. According to the complaint filed in federal court today, Downs was immediately recognized by police from his history of illegal drug use. According to online court records, Downs’ criminal history in Morgan County dates back to 2002. Downs had been sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison and 2 years of parole after pleading guilty in Morgan County Court in March 2016 for possession of methamphetamine. According to the 2016 case, Downs had allegedly been involved in a meth cook at a motel on East Morton Avenue with two other co-defendants prior to his arrest and plea in court.

During the April 22, 2022 arrest, Downs was cited for possession of a controlled substance and resisting or obstructing a peace officer and taken to the Morgan County Jail. The complaint says that upon arrival at the Morgan County Jail, Downs’ behavior was erratic and disoriented and he was taken to the jail’s nurse. After an evaluation and consultation with Advanced Correctional Healthcare (ACH), Downs was then transported to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital. The complaint says that while at the hospital, a blood test revealed the presence of heroin in Downs’ system. At 7:32PM on April 22, 2022; Downs was discharged from the hospital per the orders of correctional officers and according to the complaint, “against medical advice.” Further the complaint says that medical professionals at JMH instructed correctional officers to return Downs to the Emergency Department if Downs’ “symptoms become worse, has increased confusion, or [has] persistent vomiting.”

According to the complaint, Downs was returned to the Morgan County Detention Facility and placed in a holding cell equipped with a video camera so staff could monitor Downs’ status. On the afternoon of April 23, 2022, the complaint says that Downs then began to continuously vomit in some instances with blood over the next 34 hours.

On April 24, 2022 around mid-day, jail staff reported Downs’ conditions to jail medical staff who ordered a set of medication with definitive delivery patterns to be administered to Downs. Downs was administered one of the medications, but according to the complaint, received no further medication during his incarceration.

In the early morning hours of April 25th, a deputy with the sheriff’s department arrived to the jail and observed Downs’ condition and inquired why he was not receiving medical attention. It’s at this time shortly after the complaint says that Downs collapsed while the officer was attempting to transport him to the hospital and Downs went into cardiac arrest and died.

The autopsy later revealed that Downs had suffered from dehydration as well as septic shock due to a bowel obstruction as a consequence of a part of the small intestine sliding into an adjacent part of the intestine, known as Intussusception. This was all due to the onset of opioid withdrawal syndrome. According to the complaint, Downs vomitted over 100 times in a span of 34 hours while incarcerated at the facility, which was documented in the video surveillance of his holding cell.

The first 12 counts of the complaint name Morgan County, the Sheriff’s Department, Morgan County Detention Facility Correctional staff, and staff for ACH for wrongful death, denial of medical care as required for inmates under the 14th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, willful and wanton conduct, institutional negligence, and medical malpractice.

The final count in the suit names Jacksonville Memorial Hospital and Dr. Helen D. Kwong in the case as “having information essential to the determination of who should properly be named as additional defendants” in the case.

In an attached affidavit filed with the complaint, Dr. Joel Blackburn of Columbia, Missouri who has worked for the Missouri Department of Corrections since 2003, he says that along with jail staff that contractual staff along with ACH staff are all alleged to have committed medical negligence in contributing to Downs’ death by not providing proper standard of care. Dr. Blackburn also says that the jail and its medical staff did not follow proper protocol of the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare standards for opioid detoxification. Blackburn corroborates, based on the evidence provided to him by the plaintiffs, that a denial of proper medical care occurred directly resulting in Downs’ death.

This is the second complaint filed against the jail staff and its contracted healthcare providers this month. On March 2nd, Morris Chrisman who was sentenced to 5 years in prison on May 4, 2021 for felony theft in Morgan County Circuit Court, filed a complaint against the Morgan County Jail for not adequately providing medical attention for a broken tooth he suffered on March 4, 2021. In that complaint, Chrisman alleges jail staff ignored his complaint until he was finally seen 27 days later by a dentist on March 31, 2021.

In both suits, both plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages against the jail, the sheriff’s department, and their medical staff.

Hearings for both cases have not been set by the federal court system.