Five-hundred dollars was the difference between life and death for Jennifer Meyers.
The 37-year-old mother died in a Michigan jail on July 7, 2013, just 12 days into a 30-day sentence for failure to pay child support. A medical examiner reported that she’d died of acute sepsis, a condition that arises from infection and is usually treatable if diagnosed.
Less than two weeks before, police in Macomb County had picked Meyers up on a bench warrant over her failure to pay a $500 fee, according to WDIV. A judge determined incarceration was the best way to deal with her inability to fulfill her financial obligations.
Years later, Meyers’ case is shedding light on a number of controversial criminal justice practices that often send the sick and poor to jail, where they face harsh, sometimes fatal conditions. Meyers’ family is suing the Macomb County Jail and other officials in a federal lawsuit, claiming they violated Meyers’ constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate medical care and “forcing her to endure extreme and needless suffering prior to her death.”
But like many of the hundreds of people who die in jail each year, Meyers likely wouldn’t have been in jail at all if she’d had money. She was ensnared by the county’s “pay or stay” policy, WDIV reports, which allows judges to sentence people to jail for nonpayment of fees or fines. The Michigan state Supreme Court recently amended these rules, prohibiting judges from jailing people for nonpayment without first determining if they can afford to pay. That ruling came in the wake of another death at Macomb County Jail death, involving an inmate who died of opioid withdrawals in 2014 after being locked up for unpaid traffic tickets.
But Russell Hubble, Meyers’ father, told WDIV that it’s common to see people in the area jailed for failure to pay child support.
“They are very proud of that in Macomb County ― how they sweep people up for child support and incarcerate them,” he said in an interview last week.
Jail can be a dangerous place even for healthy inmates. The Huffington Post documented more than 800 jail deaths in the year after Sandra Bland, a black woman, was found dead in a Texas cell. But Meyers was ill when she entered the facility. Intake papers show that Meyers reported she’d suffered from acute bipolar disorder and hepatitis C and had struggled with heroin addiction, according to the lawsuit, filed in September. She’d also informed staff that she’d recently been hospitalized for an infection from an abscess on her right arm.
It didn’t take long for Meyers to exhibit obvious signs of serious sickness, the suit alleges. Fellow inmates reported that an unbearable smell was emanating from her cell, “as if she was rotting from within.” Meyers eventually became incapacitated, leaving other inmates to deliver her daily meals, which they said she would leave largely untouched.
Multiple inmates witnessed Meyers’ deteriorating condition and informed jail staff that she needed medical treatment. Meyers also repeatedly requested care for herself, the suit claims, but staff knowingly neglected her “severe and life-threatening symptoms.”
“The conditions in which Ms. Meyers was confined were inhumane in the extreme, beyond all bounds of decency, and in violation of her constitutional rights,” reads the lawsuit.
The litigation names as defendants Macomb County Jail officials and Correct Care Solutions, the company in charge of providing medical care for inmates. It alleges that officials from both parties failed in numerous ways, leading to Meyers’ unnecessary death.
“The deliberate indifference of the jail and medical staff to Jennifer’s serious medical needs, as tragically demonstrated in this litigation, should absolutely cause our citizens to distrust the correctional system,” Harold Perakis, a lawyer for Meyers’ family, told HuffPost in an email. “Decent, humane treatment of inmates by corrections officers and jail medical staff is what the law requires and must be demanded by all of our citizens.”
The county attorney’s office has declined comment on the details of the case, citing pending litigation, but has said it “would vigorously defend itself and its personnel.”