When Richmond police officers took Erin Jenkins to jail on a Friday night in 2014, her parents could not bring themselves to tell Jenkins’ 3-year-old daughter where her mom was or why she was not coming home.
A week later, they found themselves faced with a far more impossible task: telling young Gabrielle Jenkins that her mother was dead.
Guards at the just-opened Richmond City Justice Center found Jenkins unresponsive, “ice-cold” and without a pulse in her cell on Aug. 2, 2014, two days after she was transferred away from the general population because she had been hallucinating, according to a lawsuit filed by her family in federal court.
The 28-year-old was pronounced dead at VCU Medical Center hours later.
Since then, Dale and Paige Jenkins, who live in Chesterfield County, have been seeking answers to questions much like a Portsmouth family has been asking since Jamycheal Mitchell died last year in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail:
How did their child, a nonviolent offender, die under the supposed constant supervision of guards and medical staff? Why wasn’t she taken to a hospital sooner?
And why didn’t officials save video that could have provided clues into how she was treated by the jail’s staff?
Mitchell’s death has become a cause célèbre for advocates and lawmakers who say Virginia’s jails need more oversight and its mental health system should be reformed.
Jenkins did not have a history of mental illness, but her family believes the jail mistook her hallucinations as a mental health issue rather than a medical emergency. They allege in the lawsuit that jail staff ignored her for hours instead of seeking medical attention.
An attorney for Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. denied wrongdoing in a formal response to the lawsuit. Jail officials declined repeated requests for an interview last week because of the pending lawsuit.
Jenkins was one of 46 inmates who died in county or regional jails in 2014, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. She was among five who died in Richmond’s old and new jails that year.
Jenkins, who had a history of addiction to heroin and other opioids, was arrested for driving with a suspended license and for possessing marijuana and a gun after she was pulled over for having a broken taillight, her parents said. The gun belonged to a friend of hers in the back seat, they said.
When a sheriff’s department employee told them she could not provide details about what happened to their daughter until the jail received a copy of the medical examiner’s report, they hired an attorney.
“That just put a fire under [me],” Paige Jenkins said in an interview last week. “You can’t tell me … if she fell down the steps and hit her head? So you’re going to write the book backwards. Here’s the end, and now you’re going to write what happened before that.”
Crucial video missing
Paige Jenkins is the plaintiff in a $10 million lawsuit filed in June 2015 in the Richmond division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Defendants include Woody, deputies, a doctor and nurses who worked at the jail; and Correct Care Solutions, the company that contracted to provide medical and mental health care services to inmates.
Earlier this month, Mitchell’s aunt filed a lawsuit in the Norfolk division of the same federal court for $60 million against more than 30 defendants, including state mental health officials, jail administrators, guards, health care workers and court employees.
Mitchell, a mentally ill 24-year-old, was arrested in April 2015 for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store half a mile from his home.
He was supposed to be transferred to a state mental hospital for treatment, but did not make it because his name was never added to the facility’s waiting list.
He died of heart problems and extreme weight loss 101 days after arriving at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth. He had lost 46 pounds and one of his legs was severely swollen.
His family’s lawsuit alleges guards repeatedly abused and neglected Mitchell and says medical workers failed to provide or seek the proper treatment for him.
In the cases of Mitchell and Jenkins, jail officials have said videotape footage taken near their cells no longer exists.
An attorney representing Mitchell’s family said he asked the jail’s superintendent to preserve the video 14 days after his death.
However, a jail official said it was not saved because it did not show any type of criminality or negligence. The only people who saw the video before it was recorded over are employees of the jail, the official said.
The system used by Hampton Roads Regional Jail at the time automatically recorded over video every 18 days.
Richmond jail investigators allegedly saw the video taken inside and around Jenkins’ observation cell, but the footage was not preserved, according to a motion filed by Seth Carroll, an attorney representing Paige Jenkins.
In April, Carroll sought access to the jail’s video servers in the hopes that a forensic specialist could find old video.
Woody initially asked the judge to prevent the forensic specialist from making a copy of the jail’s video server, but later withdrew his request.
Last week, Carroll said the forensic investigator is still sifting through the video.
Problems with drugs
Jenkins was Dale and Paige Jenkins’ only child. She was born in Chesterfield in 1985 and grew up camping, boating and fishing with her parents.
She made friends easily and had a soft spot in her heart for homeless people and animals, her parents said.
Around the time she turned 16, she was attending Monacan High School and fell in with the wrong crowd. She became a challenge to parent.
She started drinking and eventually became addicted to heroin. She dropped out of high school at 17 and later earned a GED diploma.
She worked for her father, a contractor, for a while but was convicted in 2007 of embezzlement, a felony, for stealing his checks to support her drug habit.
Later, she worked at a distribution company with her mother, but she was fired because she called in sick too many times. She often complained about her stomach hurting, and she would not eat certain things that made her sick.
Jenkins became pregnant with Gabrielle in 2010, but she did not know who had fathered the child. She entered the program for pregnant drug addicts at Rubicon.
She cleaned up and loved taking care of “Gabby,” but drugs crept their way back into her life.
Despite her troubles, family was an important part of her life. She called each of her parents several times a day and spent Sundays at their house.
One arm was tattooed with “Daddy’s girl,” and the other said “Mama’s baby.” Gabrielle’s name and footprints were tattooed on her chest.
Her parents said that whenever Jenkins wound up in jail, they could stop worrying about her because they felt she was safe behind bars.
They saw jail as a “timeout,” a place for Jenkins to sit and think about what she needed to do to get her life in order. By the time she was arrested on July 25, 2014, she already had lengthy criminal records in the Chesterfield and Henrico County court systems.
“Well, we can sleep tonight,” Paige Jenkins recalled her husband saying when he got the call that she had been arrested. “The city of Richmond’s got her.”
A few evenings later, she said her daughter called home. Her voice was upbeat, and she wanted to speak to Gabby, who was almost asleep.
“Mommy!” Gabby said when she picked up the phone.
“Gabby!” Jenkins replied.
Then the phone cut off. That was the last time they heard Jenkins’ voice.
Five days after her arrest, Jenkins was moved to a different part of the jail, “allegedly for mental health reasons,” according to the lawsuit. “This reclassification and mental health isolation was done without evaluation, documentation or explanation.”
A day later, on July 31, 2014, a doctor noted she was “oriented, but also hallucinating,” according to the lawsuit.
Jenkins had been placed in the opiate withdrawal program after her arrest, but she initially showed no symptoms, the lawsuit said. On Aug. 1, records show she suddenly started showing signs of withdrawal, but she was not evaluated by a doctor.
The next day, she was found lying halfway on her bunk, incoherent and incontinent. She had stopped breathing, but the lawsuit alleges the deputies on duty did not begin administering CPR.
The jail’s nurses noted her absence of breath and a pulse after they arrived, and they began CPR. When EMS responders arrived, they used paddles to restart her heart.
She was taken to VCU Medical Center and put on life support.
When Dale and Paige Jenkins arrived, they found their daughter connected to a respirator, surrounded by IV poles and bags of fluid. A tube in her nose was sucking blood out of her lungs.
“Her kidneys were not working, her brain was swelling out of control, she had major heart damage, her liver had shut down. What was left?” Paige Jenkins said through tears last week. “I needed to let her go. The doctor fed me enough information to make that decision.”
The nurses turned off the alarms on the machines connected to Jenkins, and they stopped giving her the blood pressure medicine that was keeping her heart beating.
Dale and Paige sat beside their daughter, holding her hands.
Within 10 minutes, she was dead.
The medical examiner in Richmond said Jenkins died because of “acute peritonitis due to perforated duodenal ulcer,” or an inflammation of the abdominal wall caused by a rupture in her intestines.
Paige Jenkins said her daughter had never been hospitalized for any health issues. She knew that her stomach bothered her, but she was never diagnosed with having an ulcer.
She believes the jail mistakenly thought she was experiencing withdrawal and that she was hallucinating due to mental illness.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the symptoms of withdrawal are a lot like those brought on by a bad case of the flu: muscle aches, sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dilated pupils and goose bumps.
Dr. Martin Buxton, chief of psychiatry at CJW Medical Center and medical director at Tucker Pavilion, its psychiatric wing, said he could not speak directly about Jenkins because he did not examine her but, in general, hallucinations typically are not experienced by addicts who are withdrawing from heroin or other opioids.
He said there is overlap between the symptoms an addict endures when they have stopped taking opioids and the ones someone with an ulcer might experience, especially if the ulcer ruptures.
Ultrasounds and other tests can detect intestinal perforations, Buxton said, but so can physical exams that test for “rebound tenderness” in the abdomen. It hurts to press on the stomach when an ulcer perforates, but the pain is even worse when the hand is removed, because the lining of the abdomen is irritated or infected.
But addicts are typically hypersensitive to soreness, he said, so diagnosing an ulcer might be challenging.
“If you have a person howling in pain and you think they’re an addict — unless she vomited blood — I could see how the mistake could be made,” Buxton said.
Carroll, the attorney representing Paige Jenkins, said Jenkins did not show any signs of withdrawal during the first five days of her incarceration, so the medical staff should have known addiction was not causing her health problems.
Buxton said withdrawal typically affects drug users soon after they stop taking opioids, not after several symptom-free days elapse.
The symptoms usually start within 12 hours of the last exposure to heroin and within 30 hours of last methadone use, according to the NIH. The process is uncomfortable but not life-threatening.
When she got to the jail, Jenkins was prescribed Mobic, an anti-inflammatory, which can cause new or exacerbate intestinal ulcers, especially if they are taken on an empty stomach, Buxton said.
According to the lawsuit, Jenkins skipped some of her meals.
“With Erin, it was a struggle all the time from about 16 with her, but she was still our daughter,” Paige Jenkins said. “It doesn’t give them the right to just not take her to the hospital.”
Child cries for mother
Gabby Jenkins had already been living with Dale and Paige Jenkins when her mother died.
One morning about six or seven weeks after Jenkins died, Gabby was sitting on the couch watching “Little Einsteins” on television when she got quiet and sad.
“I want my mama,” she said.
Her grandmother knelt down on the floor next to her.
“I just told her that her mama was sick and she had gone to heaven — that God came and got her and she wasn’t sick anymore, and she said ‘OK,’ ” she said.
Gabby did not understand enough to cry at the time.
But as time wears on, she wakes up at night crying for her mother, and she rings an “angel bell” whenever she has something to say to her.
Gabby asks a lot of questions:
“Did my mama take her cellphone to heaven because I want to call her?”
“Do you breathe in heaven?”
“Then she wants to know, can she go to see her mom in heaven?” Paige Jenkins said. “And I have to say, ‘No, God’s got a plan for you. You have to stay here and finish the plan God has,’ and I said, ‘If you go, you can’t come back.’ ”
She added: “I guess she understands the best she can — like the rest of us.”