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Teenage Girl Left to Die of Heroin Withdrawal in Jail, Lawsuit Alleges

Tori Herr, 18, told guards that she was a heroin addict and would soon go into dangerous withdrawals if she was not given medical attention. Her pleas were ignored.

Gina Tron

Gina Tron

Courtesy of Herr Family

Eighteen-year-old Victoria "Tori" Herr died in a Pennsylvania jail, following heroin withdrawal. Her family says this could have been easily avoided with just the minimum amount of medical attention.

In March 2015, Herr was arrested for the first time and admitted into the Lebanon County Correctional Facility, about an hour east of Harrisburg.

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According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Herr's family in US District Court earlier this month, Herr told the correctional officers that she was a heroin addict and that she would soon be going through detoxification. Over the next four days, Herr vomited repeatedly and had uncontrolled diarrhea. She was unable to eat or retain fluids and was in an altered state of consciousness. Yet, the lawsuit alleges, the workers at the jail did nothing to provide her with medical treatment.

After three days of being in the correctional facility, Herr called her mother to tell her that she was thirsty and felt like she was dying. Worried, Herr's mother tried to visit her daughter in jail. A staff member told her she couldn't. According to the family's suit, that staff member said that Herr was doing "fine." The next day, Herr collapsed on the floor of her housing unit and went into cardiac arrest. She was transported to a hospital where she died five days later.

Emma Freudenberger, an attorney who is representing the Herr family, told Broadly that it should have been clear to the jail employees that Herr required serious medical attention prior to her cardiac arrest.

"This wasn't something that was borderline," Freudenberger said. "She was very, very sick. When a jail takes custody of somebody who has serious medical needs, they have to meet them. ... Either they didn't care because she was an addict, or the supervisors fostered a climate in which it was routine and felt normal to ignore inmates' medical needs."

Tori

According to the complaint, several of the jail employees yelled at Herr and accused her of faking her condition. One correctional facility employee in particular, went so far as to complain about Herr's death in a Facebook group established to commemorate Herr's life.

Correctional officer Michael Gerstner wrote: "I find this so funny that people want the tax payers to pay for people going through withdraw [sic] in prisons...So, I say let them do there [sic] 'hard' withdraw and spend the money on someone that is gonna appreciate it!!!! You do the crime, it is up to you to do the time!!!!"

She was very, very sick. When a jail takes custody of somebody who has serious medical needs, they have to meet them.

According to Freudenberger, it is the job of Gerstner and other correctional facility employees to take care of inmates going through withdrawals.

"They have to do the minimum," she said, adding that the standards for treating inmates with addiction were not met in this situation.

Herr grew up in a rural town with rolling fields and was an honors student throughout her academic career. Stephanie Moyer, Herr's mother, told Broadly that Herr was a talented artist who loved writing and drawing anime.

"She had this wonderful ability to not judge anybody and she could not hold a grudge," said Moyer. "She was not even capable of holding a grudge. I wish I could have had her around longer so that I could have learned more from her about forgiveness."

Moyer said that Herr would befriend loners to make them feel like they had a friend.

"When she reached out to people, she really was their friend," she recalled. "She would befriend them and seize the moments when she was with them. It was very genuine."

She began injecting heroin about a year prior to her death.

Herr is far from the only person who has died as a result of heroin withdrawal in jail.

In 2014, 26-year-old Madaline Pitkin died in an Oregon jail after seven days of detoxing from heroin. According to Oregon Live, Pitkin had made four written pleas for help that the medical staff allegedly mishandled.

"Pitkin detailed her intensifying weakness on jail forms and twice wrote that she felt near death," Oregon Live reported. "Yet the medical staff repeatedly ranked her withdrawal symptoms as mild. Even when nurses did become concerned about Pitkin in the later stages of her jail stay, they failed to track her low blood pressure."

Attorney Emma Freudenberger says this is a troubling trend at more and more correctional facilities. It's directly correlated to the nation's growing opioid crisis.

"The heroin epidemic is continuing to snowball out of control and one of the consequences of that is all sorts of people are coming into jails and prisons with serious heroin dependencies," said Freudenberger. "As a result, they have serious medical needs."