A new lawsuit accuses Monmouth County correctional officials of ignoring a thriving, deadly drug trade behind bars. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The family of a woman who died of a drug overdose in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution in 2022 filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the county and various county and jail officials, accusing them of ignoring pervasive drug smuggling behind bars and covering up drug-related deaths and overdoses to dodge accountability.
Jennifer A. Ross, 31, died of a fentanyl-related overdose in the jail on Sept. 20, 2022, three days after officers arrested her at her mother’s home on outstanding warrants for allegedly failing to appear in court, according to the lawsuit.
The mother of two was in recovery from long-term drug dependency, had participated in in-patient addiction treatment, and had been accepted into the Monmouth County Recovery Court Program to resolve drug-related charges, according to the filing.
But after officers took her to jail, she wasn’t placed under watch or in a protective setting, even though records documented her longtime struggle with drugs and fragile medical state, the lawsuit charges.
The jail was the worst place for Ross and other people in withdrawal or recovery, the suit says, because its “detainees were routinely exposed to an open and notorious drug trade. For years before Jennifer’s detention, a cascade of illicit drugs flowed into the Facility unchecked by authorities.”
After her overdose, officers made inadequate efforts to revive her, contributing to her death, the complaint contends.
Ross’ mother, Michelle Trussell, sued the county on behalf of Ross’ two young sons, who were 5 and 8 when their mother died.
“When she was detained in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution for missing a Recovery Court appearance, I thought she was in a safe place. I thought that Monmouth County’s officials would protect her,” Trussell said. “I did not know that the Monmouth County Correctional Institution was a facility where my vulnerable daughter would be exposed to illicit drugs. I did not know that my daughter was in a place of danger.”
The lawsuit names as defendants Sheriff Shaun Golden, Executive Undersheriff Theoadore Freeman, Warden Victor Iannello, and various other county and jail officials. It accuses them of civil rights violations including failure to protect people in their custody, failure to train, supervise, and discipline officers and staff, failure to render adequate medical care, state-created danger, and negligence.
Cynthia Scott, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said they don’t comment on pending litigation. Iannello and a county spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The 1,328-bed jail is among the top-10 largest county lockups in the nation, according to its website.
Barry Albin, a former associate justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, is leading the Lowenstein Sandler team of attorneys that filed the lawsuit.
They blasted county correctional officials for their “overall indifference” and “abysmal failure” to detect and crack down on drugs in jail, where overdoses have prompted other lawsuits, investigations, and arrests.
“For years, the ubiquity of drugs in the Facility had endangered the health and safety of detainees and constituted an unconstitutional condition of confinement,” Albin wrote.
In 2017, Freeman wrote in a trade publication about the entrenched drug trade in the jail and the fatal overdoses and lawsuits it spawned. Several Monmouth County correctional officers have been arrested in recent years for smuggling drugs into the jail in potato chip bags.
Five months before Ross’ death, a pretrial detainee died after overdosing on fentanyl-tainted heroin another inmate gave him. Jail officials didn’t report his death to the state as required, because it occurred in the hospital several days after the overdose, the lawsuit says. They did, though, report Ross’ death and four others in 2022; Ross was the only one attributed to overdose, state records show.
Trussell said she hopes her lawsuit will drive institutional change.
“County jails should be drug-free zones,” she said. “No parent should receive a knock on their door and be told that their daughter died of an overdose while in the custody of people who should have kept her safe.”
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