On any given day, thousands of people are arrested and jailed who are to some degree alcohol-impaired. Most of these people are not in grave danger due to withdrawing from alcohol while incarcerated. However, among users there’s a percentage with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) who drink every day and have become physically dependent on alcohol so that their body chemistry will undergo dangerous, sometimes deadly changes during cold-turkey withdrawal. For this group, the only safe way to withdraw from alcohol is under closely monitored medical supervision and treatment.

Because many jails and prisons provide sub-standard medical screening and care, people are dying slow, agonizingly painful deaths from alcohol withdrawal while in custody. These deaths are entirely preventable.

Over half the people in the United States drink alcohol. Of this number, around 25-35 % binge drink occasionally. Binge drinking can be described as consuming enough drinks in a short period of time to be legally intoxicated. The occasional bout of binge drinking is entirely different from Alcohol Use Disorder.

in-custody jail deaths

Jail deaths

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Different individuals have differing body chemistry. Medications and other substances we ingest can have radically different effects on two different people. Research scientists have been studying AUD for decades. Most agree that people with AUD don’t process alcohol the same way ordinary drinkers do. Though the precise cause of this allergy has not been irrefutably confirmed, AUD does seem to run in families, which suggests it may be hereditary.

One interesting hypothesis is the THIQ hypothesis, which posits that when a person with AUD drinks, their body does not fully process all the chemicals contained in alcohol like most people do, but instead deposits a minute amount of acetaldehyde in the brain. Once in the brain, this poisonous chemical is, through a complex process, converted into the same chemical heroin addicts have in their brains, tetrahydrolsoquinoline (THIQ). Once enough THIQ is built up in the brain, the subject cannot ingest any alcohol without triggering an overpowering craving for more.

Whatever the cause of AUD, a common factor is an overpowering craving for more alcohol which is triggered when the person with AUD ingests even a small amount. Even after years of abstinence it is not safe for someone with AUD to drink at all. The only cure for AUD is lifelong abstinence, similar to avoiding any other substance if one is allergic to it.

How Widespread is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is a fairly common problem. According to a 2019 survey on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website, over 14.1 million adults in the U.S. suffered from AUD in 2019. This is approximately 5.6% of adults, or over one in twenty people who suffer from AUD. For additional alarming statistics on AUD, click on the link above.

As mentioned previously, people with AUD cannot safely withdraw from using alcohol without medical intervention.

Dangers of Cold Turkey Withdrawal for Someone with AUD

Regular use of alcohol has a sedative effect on the brain. The brain eventually becomes dependent on alcohol as the body chemistry adapts to its presence in the system of someone who drinks to excess regularly. The brain then develops higher levels of other chemicals to compensate for the depressant effect of the alcohol.

Abrupt cessation of drinking throws the brain into overdrive because of the abnormally high level of other chemical stimulants the brain has produced such as serotonin and norepinephrine, to compensate for the alcohol sedation. When the sedation from alcohol is abruptly stopped, the higher level of chemical stimulants the person with AUD has produced naturally does not then just decrease; as the alcohol level in the body subsides the person with AUD is in increasingly grave danger due to overstimulation. The only way to put the brakes on is by administering a sedative such as Valium or another Benzodiazepine.

Symptoms can begin within hours of cessation of drinking and grow progressively worse, in some cases within a short time of cessation of drinking. For instance, some people progress to delirium tremens (DTs) within a couple of days or less from their last drink, others do not progress to that stage for as long as two weeks, and still others do not develop DTs from withdrawal.

Timelines vary depending on several factors including how long and how heavily someone with AUD has been drinking, how many times the person has gone through withdrawal previously, age and physical health. Because of the potential dangers of alcohol withdrawal it is never a good idea to generalize. Some people experience some, but not all of the withdrawal symptoms listed below. About 5% of people with AUD who do not receive medical attention while withdrawing from alcohol progress to Delirium Tremens and of that number one in twenty die.

Symptoms and stages of alcohol withdrawal:

  • Shakes; nausea; vomiting; hypertension; sweating; nightmares; insomnia.
  • Hallucinations—from mild (i.e. bugs crawling, etc) to severe (complete loss of touch with one’s surroundings)
  • Seizures—can include repetitive, violent bouts of seizures
  • Delirium Tremens—can include extreme hallucinations (completely out of touch with reality); extreme hypertension; anger; confusion; sweating; loss of consciousness; dehydration; high fever; racing heartbeat; heart attack; death.

The withdrawal symptoms can progress rapidly or slowly, over hours, days, or even weeks, during which the individual exhibits increased levels of distress and illness, and their corresponding behavior can become bizarre. The fact that someone can actually die from withdrawal in jail without anybody noticing their distress or rendering immediate medical attention is an indication of the level of disconnection and/or criminal indifference to inmates’ overall health and safety in many correctional facilities.


aud inmate health

alcohol withdrawal in jail

Is Alcohol Safer than Other Substances?

Despite the fact that alcohol is legal, it is by far the most dangerous drug to abuse, especially for people who are predisposed through their unique body chemistry to AUD. There are three addictive drugs that can cause death from withdrawal, heroin, benzodiazepines and alcohol. Of the three, alcohol is the most deadly.

Unfortunately, many people who would never think of trying an illegal substance drink alcohol. People believe that alcohol use must be safer or it wouldn’t be legal. Also, drinking alcoholic beverages is a huge part of our culture and many people drink to fit in. Because over one in twenty people are likely genetically predisposed to developing Alcohol Use Disorder, the fact that people feel safe using alcohol is like a ticking time bomb.

Some people will become addicted because of their body chemistry even if they avoid drinking to excess. Many people recovering from AUD report that they didn’t start drinking to excess until they were middle aged or older. This seems to bear out the THIQ hypothesis, that people who are allergic to alcohol do not process it the same way as normal people and eventually, if they drink at all they will build up enough of the deadly chemical in their brains to become addicted.

Once addicted to alcohol an otherwise law-abiding individual can wind up in jail for a misdemeanor such as drunk in public, a serious offense such as DUI, or a number of alcohol-related offenses which that person would never dream of committing when sober and in their right mind. Once jailed, the person suffering from AUD will begin detoxing, with or without medical support. Without the medical support which correctional facilities are legally mandated to provide, someone who suffers from AUD is in danger of serious injury or death from withdrawal.

How Many People with AUD Die from Withdrawal in Jail?

Though scattered reports of in-custody deaths from alcohol withdrawal occasionally hit the news, it’s extremely difficult to determine how high the numbers of deaths due to withdrawal are. Those cases we do hear about are reported after a loved one files a civil rights lawsuit or other legal complaint. Then the death can be  investigated by an independent forensic pathologist and reclassified from whatever the jail staff and coroner originally reported to death due to alcohol withdrawal.

This scenario is illustrated in the recent case of Priscilla Slater, a young woman who died within hours of being arrested after her boyfriend allegedly fired shots into a Harper Woods Michigan motel parking lot. According to an eyewitness account of the incident, the boyfriend then assaulted Priscilla, pushing her to the ground before fleeing the scene. Priscilla died within hours after being taken into custody.

The coroner’s report listed Priscilla’s death as due to abnormal cardiac condition. Security camera footage showed her having a seizure in her cell just a few hours after being arrested. Apparently jailers weren’t watching the security cameras or checking on inmates to determine if they needed assistance. Priscilla was discovered dead in her cell seven hours after the seizures were recorded on video.

Two police officers have been fired for altering records related to Priscilla Slater’s death. One officer filed a lawsuit claiming his supervisor ordered him to alter the records. When death due to alcohol withdrawal is investigated during litigation, a coverup by corrections officers usually surfaces.

Civil Litigation Defends and Safeguards the Rights and Safety of Prisoners

When somebody is arrested and taken into custody they are subsumed into the powerful and impersonal machinery of our criminal justice system and are then totally at the mercy of their jailers. While prisoners’ rights are protected by the 8th and 14th Amendments to our Constitution, this protection is only on paper unless somebody stands up to the criminal justice machinery and holds them accountable through civil litigation.

For every jail and prison death from withdrawal that we hear about, there are likely many more cases where the records have been altered to cover up wrongdoing by corrections officers and medical staff in order to avoid liability. Sadly, when there is nobody to question fabricated records, fictional accounts regarding cause of death are allowed pass for the truth and the abuses continue unchecked.

My Loved One Died Soon After Being Arrested and Taken Into Custody: How Can I Find Out What Really Happened?

If you suspect that your loved one’s death was due to wrongdoing on the part of police, correctional officers or jail medical staff the best way to uncover the truth is to contact a Civil Rights Attorney without delay. Your attorney will listen to your story and, if there’s strong suspicion that your loved one’s rights were violated, file a Wrongful Death Lawsuit on your behalf and on behalf of your deceased loved one.

When somebody files a Wrongful Death lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiff have the right to

Your legal team will conduct a thorough investigation into what really happened to cause the death of your loved one. If there was wrongdoing and a subsequent coverup, a skilled and experienced legal team will uncover the truth.

surveillance footage

In wrongful death suits, attorneys for the plaintiff have the right to view surveillance footage

Standard of Proof

In order to win a case against a government entity such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) plaintiffs had to prove that CDCR employees and contractors behaved with deliberate disregard for the victim’s health and safety. The legal term is subjective deliberate indifference. This was an extremely difficult standard of proof, as it’s practically impossible to prove what motivates somebody else’s behavior. However, a recent ruling has changed the rules and made it easier to hold correctional and jail facilities accountable for failure to protect inmates who are  pre-trial detainees and who have yet to be convicted of a crime.

In a recent game-changing case, Gordon, Mary  v. County of Orange et al., the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled that subjective deliberate indifference is the wrong standard to apply in cases where a pretrial detainee’s rights to adequate medical care are violated. The standard of proof was lowered to objective deliberate indifference. What the lowered standard means is that you don’t have to prove what motivated corrections officers and medical staff if they failed to provide adequate care which then caused an inmate grave injury or death. You only have to prove they failed to act within the standard of what a reasonable person would do in similar circumstances.

For detailed information on how this case has given prisoners and their families more power to fight back, click on the above links. The Sehat Law Firm represents Mary Gordon in this action.

What Would I Gain by Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

The legal theory behind civil litigation is to restore the injured party to wholeness. Money, even a huge settlement, will not replace your loved one. However, you can also demand injunctive relief to create stricter rules and guidelines which will help protect others and keep more people from dying. By filing a Wrongful Death lawsuit you can find out the truth about your loved one’s death and hold wrongdoers accountable. In some egregious cases Juries award punitive damages to punish wrongdoer(s) and discourage others from similar behavior.

Call the Sehat Law Firm if Your Loved One Suffered Grave Injury or Death While In-Custody

Hello, my name is Cameron Sehat. It is horribly sad and frustrating that those who have power over others’ lives and safety so frequently abuse that power and cause widespread suffering and death.

It is my life’s work to defend and uphold the Civil Rights and Liberties guaranteed to all by our United States Constitution. If you or somebody you love suffers grievous injury or death at the hands of police or corrections facility staff, I will fight to ensure that justice is served. Together we can hold wrongdoers accountable and protect our Constitutional rights to be free of abuse of power by government entities.