18 people have died in the Macomb County Jail since 2012. This is one woman's story.
It was July 7, 2013, and Diane Hubble remembers that she was making mulberry jam at her son’s house.
When she came home, there was a Macomb County sheriff’s car, still running, parked in the driveway. She knew immediately that something was very wrong, and that it had to do with her daughter, Jennifer Meyers.
Jennifer was in the Macomb County jail, again. Diane already knew this. Her daughter was a heroin addict, and had been in and out of jail more times than her family could keep track.
By the time Diane walked into the living room, the sheriff’s deputies had already told her husband, Russ, that Jennifer was dead.
“They just told us that, ‘She was at breakfast, she was at lunch, and [then] we found her dead in her cell,’” Diane recalled.
They were shocked by her death, but not terribly surprised. Jennifer had struggled with addiction for years, and it had taken a serious physical toll on her body.
Jennifer was only 37 years old, but she had chronic Hepatitis C. She’d been hospitalized just a couple months before with a serious infection.
The Hubbles were left with the impression Jennifer died suddenly, and they had no reason to doubt that. They held the same assumption many people do, that your addicted loved one is safer in jail than almost anywhere else.
“You think, ‘They’re in the jail, no drug dealers are going to show up and give them drugs. They’re going to have to go through a detoxification,’” Russ said. "You sleep through the night where you haven’t been sleeping, when you know they’re in there.”
Like many addicts, Jennifer had strained relations with her family. But she was still Russ and Diane’s daughter, the eldest of their three children, and a mother of three children herself. Her death left all of them struggling to pick up the pieces and move on.
Months went by before the death certificate arrived. It revealed Jennifer’s official cause of death: acute sepsis.
“My wife processes medical claims,” Russ Hubble said. “So when the final death certificate came to the house and it said acute sepsis, she said, ‘Wait a minute. That takes hours, or days. It’s not something where you could have had a heart attack.’”
“Something didn’t seem right,” Diane said.
"Jennifer was really sick before she died."
After learning Jennifer’s true cause of death, the Hubbles immediately requested her autopsy report. Diane sent Russ down to the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office to request all Jennifer’s records from the jail.
In the meantime, they started to hear rumors. One night at a restaurant, Diane ran into someone who had known Jennifer.
“The woman told Diane, ‘You know, Jennifer was really sick before she died,’” Russ recalled.
"Something didn't seem right."
The Hubbles found out that other women who had been in jail with Jennifer were looking for them too. When they got in touch, they all told a similar story: Jennifer had been desperately sick for days before she died.
“We knew that she was sick when she came in,” said Kimberly Eland, who was in the cell block next to Jennifer’s. “It was very clear. She was discolored. She was hung over a bin, coughing up fluid.”
Jennifer couldn’t get out of bed for meals. Other inmates brought her food, but she wouldn’t eat or drink. She was sweating profusely.
And then there was the smell — described as “a terrible, unbearable smell” through the whole unit. Another inmate said it was like Jennifer “was rotting from within.”
The other inmates knew Jennifer wasn’t just detoxing; something was seriously, medically wrong. They tried to raise the alarm, many times.
“She would tell the guards [she was sick] when they came through, she was telling the nurses when they came through in the morning and at night,” Eland said. “And nobody was doing anything about it.”
Jennifer kept getting worse. But in the last few days of her life, when she was sickest, no medical staff saw her at all.
Then on July 7, she was found dead, alone, in her cell.
“We watched the guards come in, and the nurses come in, and then we watched the coroner come in and take her out in a body bag,” Eland said.
Russ Hubble says they debated what to do with this painful information for a long time.
“It’s very shocking, and it’s very upsetting,” he said. “And my grandchildren don’t need to know this if we can’t do something with this information.”
In late 2016, more than three years after Jennifer died, they did do something.
They filed a federal lawsuit against Macomb County, the jail, and the jail’s contract medical provider, Correct Care Solutions.
It claims Jennifer’s “inhumane conditions of confinement” forced her to “endure extreme and needless pain and suffering prior to her death.”
That lawsuit is still pending. Macomb County denies any wrongdoing, and has fought the case vigorously in court.
Correct Care Solutions did not respond to requests for comment.
Dying behind bars
The Hubbles’ lawsuit isn’t the only one Macomb County faces right now. There have been seven federal lawsuits filed over deaths there since 2013.
The cases are very different, but all have a common claim, that these were preventable deaths resulting from a “pattern, practice, or custom of unconstitutional conduct” toward inmates.
Correct Care Solutions, the jail’s medical contractor, reports 18 deaths there since 2012.
Of course, people die in jail like they do everywhere else, for all kinds of reasons. But the rate at which inmates have been dying in Macomb County recently exceeds state and national averages.
From 2012-2016, the rate is nearly twice the national average.
Dr. Terry Kupers, an expert on prison and jail conditions who has served as an expert witness in dozens of inmate death cases, says that’s “a lot” for a county jail that size.
Kupers hasn’t studied the Macomb County Jail, or any of the deaths there. But he says one thing is clear, chronic overcrowding, which Macomb County has experienced for years, creates riskier conditions.
“We have very good research that crowding in jail correlates strongly with violence, rates of mental breakdown of all kinds, medical illnesses, and suicide,” Kupers said. “All of those things rise with crowding.”
More than a decade of overcrowding
The jail’s issues with overcrowding go back about 15 years, well before current Sheriff Anthony Wickersham took office.
Wickersham has had to declare three overcrowding “emergencies” during his tenure. The first was in 2013, less than two months after Jennifer Meyers passed away.
In 2014, Wickersham and other county leaders decided to look for a bigger overcrowding fix. They hired an outside criminal justice consulting group to take an in-depth look at the jail, and recommend bigger, longer-lasting solutions.
That 153-page report, released publicly earlier this year, doesn’t mention Jennifer Meyers, or directly address the issue of deaths in the jail at all.
But it does detail a combination of big, systemic issues coming together in the jail. None of them is unique to Macomb County, but they have collided in an ugly way there.
One notable finding: The opioid epidemic has hit the county hard. The study notes the “terrible impact of drugs” at the Macomb County Jail.
Of the 18 deaths reported there since 2012, at least three were drug overdoses that happened inside the jail itself.
One of them was 42-year-old Daniel Byrd, who died serving a 30-day sentence in 2015. His niece, Malinda Odisho, is also suing the county.
Odisho says that among most of the jail deaths she knows about, “I do find the common denominator is some form of opiate [or] heroin addiction.”
Wickersham says more than 70% of jail inmates are believed to have a substance abuse problem. If you throw in mental illness, that’s pretty much the jail’s population at any given time.
“As sheriff, I really have limited control on who comes to jail. Police officers in Macomb County and my deputies are arresting individuals,” Wickersham said. “Once they go in front of a judge, it’s judges deciding who goes to jail and who goes home.”
Wickersham wouldn’t comment on any specific cases, including Jennifer Meyers’.
He says more inmates are being sent to the hospital for medical care now, and that's true.
But otherwise Wickersham says he doesn’t see “major problems” with how the jail’s being run.
“In reality, there’s a lot of sick people here," he said. "A lot of sick people that would never go see a doctor on the outside.”
"A major upheaval" that never came
But Jennifer Meyers didn’t get to see a doctor when she needed one the most.
Many former Macomb jail inmates call conditions there, among other things, “horrible” and “inhuman.”
“I strongly believe she would be alive if it weren’t for the Macomb County Jail,” one of Jennifer’s fellow inmates wrote in a witness statement.
Russ Hubble says the details behind deaths like Jennifer’s are so shocking, he just assumed there would be a harsh reckoning at the jail.
“You think boy, there’s going to be a major upheaval over there. This is going to bring about an investigation like you wouldn’t believe, and change,” he said.
But there hasn’t been anything like that.
Diane Hubble says jail staff need much better training in addiction, and much more humane conditions for detoxing inmates, and its leaders just need to do more, and care more, about suffering going on there.
“It’s not just ‘Oh, that’s an addict, it’s no big deal.’ There are signs,” she said, “and especially in Jennifer’s case, had her vitals been taken, it would have been recognized. It should have been recognized.”
In the wake of Jennifer’s death, the Hubbles—who say they’re normally “private” people—have become activists. They volunteer with several addiction-related programs, and go to vigils and training sessions. Diane fields endless phone calls from people whose loved ones are also struggling with addiction, or want to share stories about doing time in the Macomb County Jail.
And they attend regular protests outside the jail complex in Mount Clemens. They’ve found a new, tight-knit community among the loved ones of others who have died there, because they don’t want anyone else to die there like Jennifer did.
This is the first in an ongoing series of stories about the Macomb County Jail, the justice system, and related issues.