What went wrong: An addict’s jail stay ends in death

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Addicted to pain pills and pregnant, Jen McCormack landed in jail. 21 days later, she was dead.

by Jordan Green

High spirited, loud and full of caustic wit, Jen McCormack commanded the room at a party.

She was the person most likely to be dancing or singing along with Of Montreal at one of LaToya Winslow’s frequent gatherings on South Mendenhall Street near the campus of UNCG in Greensboro.

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Jen McCormack was known for her fabulous laugh.

Jen was the ringleader, the one who made introductions in a circle of open-minded, artistically inclined friends that remains intact to this day, even as its members have graduated and spread afield to Raleigh, Fayetteville and San Francisco. An agnostic who majored in religious and classical studies at UNCG, she was considered among her friends to be the smartest, and the most likely to live an illustrious life.

But at some point, Jen began to go off track. There was an unsuccessful marriage that contrasted painfully with the contented pairings of some of her friends. Jen kept her ex-husband’s last name because she couldn’t afford the legal costs of changing it back. And while she found a new circle of loyal friends among coworkers at the Apple Store in Charlotte, Jen was plagued with health problems, including knees that required surgery. She started abusing prescription pain pills, a habit that began with a legitimate effort at pain management. Through all her ordeals, she still managed to earn a master’s degree in digital libraries from the University of South Carolina.

Jen had found a boyfriend, a guy her friends considered to be kind and supportive, but he left her after he discovered that she lied to him about her opiate habit. In early 2014, she became pregnant through a liaison with different man. Unable to continue at the Apple Store because of her health problems, she moved back to Winston-Salem to live with her mother in the summer of 2014. With her mother’s support, Jen made the decision to keep her baby.

By then, Jen had largely cut off her friends in the old Mendenhall crew. Over the course of several weeks in the late summer Jen resorted calling in fraudulent prescriptions for hydrocodone by impersonating nurses and physician assistants in Winston-Salem and High Point. She was arrested by a Winston-Salem police officer at the Walgreens across from Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem on Aug. 20.

The police report indicates that Jen attempted to hang herself in the bathroom at the pharmacy. As a result, she was taken to Forsyth Medical Center for a mental health evaluation. She also received treatment for her addiction — Suboxone, a relatively new opiate-substitute drug on the US market — during her eight-day stay. Medication-assisted treatment, whether with Suboxone or Methadone, is considering the standard of care for pregnant women struggling with opiate dependence.

The day she was released from Forsyth Medical Center, a Winston-Salem police detective charged Jen with 10 counts of drug fraud and a magistrate signed off on a $25,000 bond — an amount far beyond her family’s means that ensured she wouldn’t make bail.

In 21 days Jen would be dead.

ΦΦΦ

Here’s where I make a personal admission.

I knew Jen well enough to call her a friend. But looking back, I didn’t come through as a friend when she most needed one. And to be honest, we were never especially close.

I came into the Mendenhall circle in early 2008, shortly after meeting my future wife, which was also around the same time Jen was moving to Charlotte. We saw each other at parties and weddings, but I don’t particularly remember any personal conversations that would have allowed us to really get to know one another.

Over the past seven years, my wife and I have grown increasingly close with LaToya, and Sarah, along with her husband Adam. We named LaToya the godmother of our daughter, who was born in 2013. All that is to say that, not knowing Jen very well, her death registered with me primarily as sadness for LaToya and Sarah, along with my wife.

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Jen McCormack

Jen’s arrest “made the news,” to use an unsentimental phrase common among those who don’t necessarily appreciate media attention. The hideous booking photograph and story ripped straight from the police press release in the Winston-Salem Journal rattled me, although I too have recycled plenty of press releases about low-level offenders, often adding a dose of mockery and belittlement. Now I know how it feels to be on the other side.

When my wife told me that Jen had died, I felt shock and sadness, but I was preoccupied with family and professional matters. And if I thought Jen’s death was newsworthy at all, I’m sure I concluded that my personal connection to her ruled me out as the reporter for the assignment. I wanted to move on as quickly as possible.

It took writing about addiction four months later for me to realize that I had a personal connection to a story as harrowing, sad and unjust as any I had covered as a reporter. After all, here was a woman with an unborn child who had suffered an apparent heart attack in jail, and later died as a result of it. Considering my personal entanglements, I felt that I needed permission from Jen’s closest friends to write the story. They agreed that it was important to hold the jail accountable, but wanted to make sure it was alright with Janis McCormack, Jen’s mother. Janis eventually gave her blessing.

Was Jen’s death avoidable? What might have been done to protect her? Where exactly did the system fail her? Have we as a society abandoned the most vulnerable of our citizens and failed to allocate adequate resources to ensure their protection?

These are questions that need to be asked on behalf of any friend — or, for that matter, any stranger.

If we don’t care what happened to Jen, maybe that means we don’t care that much about our own health and safety. Do we want a healthcare system in our jail that truly protects people, or should we just hope for the best and accept that the worst is in the realm of possibility if we or someone we love ends up there?

ΦΦΦ

  • What an outrageous story, from beginning to end. Prescribing opiates. Jailing a pregnant woman (or anyone else) who is in treatment. Taking her freedom away, but not providing even a bare minimum of medical care. Limiting her family’s visits because she was “in custody” (but claiming she did not die in custody.) And finally, not ordering an autopsy. Two lives lost and the public, let alone this poor woman’s family, are not owed a medical explanation? Keep digging, Jordan.

  • Billy Ingram

    Really and truly one of the finest examples of journalism anywhere.

  • Abby Karp

    Thanks for an article that does not strain to add drama or pathos to a story that is just so sad with an ending that did not have to happen. And we all know that this happens without notice or fanfare to so many not-white and not-college educated human beings.

    • Abby,
      Absolutely. I’m sure far and away most of the victims of this sort of treatment don’t fit into any of the same categories. I hope that in the future we can investigate some of those stories too, and that the public will help us in identifying other instances of potential mistreatment of inmates. Thanks for reading!

    • Jordan Green

      Abby, you’re entirely correct, of course. It doesn’t take anything away from Jen to acknowledge that if she were a woman of color, this story would be getting far less traction because readers would have more difficulty getting past the stigma of addiction to see a human being. We have some evidence based on previous stories about addiction and crime and punishment that covers portraying African Americans don’t get as many pick-ups. There’s no reasonable explanation for that other than latent racism. As Eric alluded, we ran with this story because it came our way. But we’re absolutely committed to telling the stories of all members of our community with equal passion and diligence, no matter how many people want to read them or not.

  • Jordan Green

    Thanks to all of you for the comments. I agree wholeheartedly. One small note, Lorraine: Prescribing opiate substitutes such as Methadone and Suboxone is actually recommended by physicians for treating addiction. So there would be an issue if the nurses in the jail took Jen off Suboxone and caused her to go into withdrawal. We simply don’t know whether they did or not, because the available documents don’t mention it one way or the other.

    • Sarah

      Mr. Green, Thank you so much for writing this story about my friend. Jen was one of those people everyone wanted to know. She was a kind and funny soul and she didn’t deserve all the heartache she endured in the past few years. I hope through your story others will be more aware about the grave situation of prescription addiction. More resources need to be available for others that are in this situation. More compassion needs to be available as well. And don’t get me started on the police and the jail! It is so sad these institutions have gone so far down the drain. Do they help anyone that needs it? Is there anyone at all in these places that understands what addiction does to a body and mind, not to mention a person’s spirit. Again, thank you for writing this story Mr. Green. Please don’t stop digging into what exactly happened. Jen deserved to be treated better than she was, as I am sure many others do. I hope the people who neglected her will come to justice themselves.

  • Chris Jasso

    Truly a sad story! I’m very thankful that you have put this story out there for others to read.

  • Jordan, re: opiates, I don’t mean methadone, etc., but rather the painkillers that were prescribed (or maybe I assumed they were?) for pain in the first place. This seems to be the original source for a lot of people getting hooked on pharmaceutical heroine — their doctors (and dentist.)
    Great report.

    • Jordan Green

      Yes. I see your point.

  • Ashley

    I agree with Lorraine in regard to the administration of prescription pain killers. I underwent surgery earlier this year and even though I was taking my *prescribed* medication as *prescribed*, I developed a physical dependence and expierenced a small bought of withdrawals. I used to think of it as a cop-out, getting addicted to prescription drugs, but I can now see how easy it is, how quickly it can happen, and under the most innocent of circumstances, especially for a person who is predisposed to addiction in the first place. I can especially relate to withdrawals. Mine were very simple compared to what people who have been physically dependent and for a long period of time suffer.

    I have also personally know an individual who was incarcerated in Orange County, NC who was denied his prescription suboxone because of some formality with the dating of the prescription. He would have to have obtained a new prescription which required a face to face with his provider, an obviously impossible task while incarcerated. He expierenced severe withdrawals for which he wasn’t even given acetaminophen, even though it was a well on

  • Ashley

    Excuse me.. Well on

  • Ashley

    WELL KNOWN fact that he was in treatment. By the way his incarceration came three years after his conviction due to repeated continuations.

    My phone is severely damaged. Forgive the multiple posts. My whole point is that these are serious issues. Prescription drug addiction and the way addicts are treated in the justice system.

    My heart goes out to Jen’s mother and her friends and family. I desperately hope they get the answers they are seeking and are able to grieve their loved ones in peace.

  • Rodney Traynham

    As a society, we have the attitude of turning our nose at those suffering through addiction to drugs and other illicit substances. We automatically fall into the stereotype of calling them bad people and say “They all should be locked away so they can clean up”. Some addicts are bad people. These individuals are criminals before they become drug abusers, but there are others. People like Jennifer McCormack try to escape the physical and emotional pain he or she suffers through and feel no other course of action can alleviate the pain. Ms. McCormack was a young woman who seemed to be full of life and love, yet suffered through physical pain that seemed to be one of the triggers for her addictions.

    Yes, she committed a crime, but I think the Sheriff’s office should have done a little more work to learn of the reasons for her actions and lessened the bond. $25,000 was way too much for the crime Ms. McCormack had committed. A jail cell is not a rehab facility. The lack of empathy by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is deplorable. They should serve the public and not go hunting for arrests in every nook and cranny within the county.

    It saddens me to read this article and see how dependency to prescription drugs changed Jennifer McCormack for the worse. There are so many what-ifs that could be asked, yet can never be answered. The Jennifer McCormack I read about in this article seemed like a young woman that everyone cared for and loved beyond measure and not the “drug fiend” that was illustrated in news reports of her arrest.

    Mr. Green, thank you for writing this article. Your words gave a much needed contradiction to what the media, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, and society branded this young woman. If at least one person who reads this article and becomes empathetic to the affliction of addiction, then hopefully that empathy will spread and become commonplace in our apathetic and callous society.

  • C Harrell

    My heart is breaking for this girl’s family & loved ones. I’ve had the same experience- completely legitimate pain killer prescription for impacted wisdom teeth that kept getting infected & abscessed. After a few years my DDS refused (reluctantly as well as somewhat rightfully) to continue prescribing a 10-15 day prescription every 6 months & told me I needed to had them removed. At 18 with no family, no job, no healthcare, it isn’t that simple. I started getting Vicodin though friends. When a “friend” didn’t have any he gave me morphine. At the time I was in so much pain becoming addicted never crossed my mind. A few years later turned into a 10 year SERIOUS habit. I’ve seen more friends die than live. I made it out only after multiple attempts at methadone (which I never used properly). It wasn’t until I got on Suboxone I really got clean. The ONLY reason I was able to afford the $3,300.00 (YES! $3,300..00!!!) was because of an inheritance after my Dad died. Hence to say a humble man who worked his entire life in a factory, saving every penny he could for his only 2 surviving relatives, saved for decades to pay for medication that lasted me a year. There’s something SERIOUSLY wrong there. THAT’S how expensive it is to get prescribed meds that make you healthy & that you can’t abuse. It’s so wrong on so many levels. Thank you fpor writing this. It NEEDS to be talked about… And again, my condolences to your friend & her family… A tragedy that doesn’t need to happen in this country. I don’t want to turn this poor family’s pain into a political statement, but if people (especially in this state) decided it was in humanity’s best interest to pay a few extra dollars out of every $100 in taxes these thins might not happen… Because TRUST ME, it could be ANYONE’S child next.

    • C Harrell

      Sorry, I meant to say $3,300 a MONTH for Suboxone with no insurance..… Yes, three THOUSAND, three hundred dollars a MONTH!

  • Walle, A.

    I spoke with someone not too long ago, who committed themselves, after a devastating loss of a spouse that they couldn’t otherwise normally handle; getting off the meds they were prescribed, they told me, was worse than the reason why they went in, and that they never would never do it again.

    • C Harrell

      So sad. I almost can’t read the comments because I understand their pain. I truly hope they are healthy now…. mind & body :(

  • BG

    thanks for writing this story, what a sad story, what a sad county Forsyth county is sham on this county.

  • Dustina ILia

    So said that two lives are lost here while in custody at the of those who are there to protect them into guard down. It never ceases to amaze me how jails what to so quickly play doctor when they don’t have the experience and the knowledge to do so. They should’ve took her to the emergency room immediately just to be on the safe side if for no other reason. Addiction is a disease and professionals who deal with the disease of addiction should be the ones who should’ve been treating her all along. To deny her the right to a medication that I doctor prescribed to her is just simply murderous on their part and they need to be held accountable. The harm that addition cost far outweighs the cost of the medication to help treat it. Lives matter

  • Rhonda

    Why was the bond so high. She shouldn’t have been in jail. In 2011 Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Man faces 24 counts of prescription fraud was free on a $250 cash bond.

    2013, pharmacist in Brookfield, Wisconsin was charged with 12 felonies of prescription drug thefts and released on a signature bond (requires no money).

    “A signature bond is common in cases where a defendant has no prior criminal history, is not considered a flight risk and has committed a minor or non-violent misdemeanor crime. Crimes that may fall into this category include vandalism, possession of small amounts of drugs, trespassing or driving under the influence.” from – http://www.ehow.com/about_4689829_what-signature-bond.html

    $25,000 bail, WHY? She’s was pregnant, with other health issues, living at home with her mother. Yet, a man with a higher count of prescription fraud, was released on a $250 cash bond and a pharmacist stealing drugs worth over thousands over a two year period, given a signature bond, normally used for misdemeanors. Yes, she committed a crime, but she shouldn’t have been in jail at that time. She should have been out on a (reasonable set) bail amount, being treated for her addiction, with a trail date for after the birth of her child.

  • Caroline

    Thank you for shedding light on a conversation that families and communities too often hide behind the shame society has attached to addiction and substance use disorders. In response to such tragedy, there was recently the first national rally to Unite To Face Addiction on the mall in Washington, D.C., estimated to have drawn 50,000 Americans across the country. This was a phenomenal event that had performers such as Joe Walsch, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, and many more – come together to bring awareness in our nation’s capital. As an addiction professional and personal advocate, the unity and support at this rally was unlike anything I have ever experienced.

    However, the event did not get the coverage that I believe it deserved nationally. Wilmington has been the only North Carolina community to cover this giant step towards social justice for individuals with addiction or who are in recovery. For more information you can visit the organization’s website that pieced this rally together: https://www.facingaddiction.org/actnow/

    If you search for “Unite To Face Addiction” online you will find some information about the event, but there are great videos, photos, and quotes if you search the hashtag #UNITEtoFaceAddiction

  • paita

    What happen to this poor women is happening EVERYWHERE to the medically ILL W/PAINFUL/SIEZURES MEDICAL CONDITIONS,,Because of the cdc’s Klondyn,,the dea going after innocent doctors,,,parents of adult children who o.d. who want REVENGE for their adult childs death or choice to abuse medicines or unlawful drugs,,,instead of greif ,,they want all the medically ill w/painful medical condition to suffer in tortureous physical pain till death,,,it truly is an act of WILLFULL torture and genocide by our government onto the medically ill w/painful medical condition who need MEDICINE,like opiates/valium to live every second of their day NOT in physical pain from medical illness!!!Don’t believe me,,check out a petition called ,”petition 2 congress dea going after doctors,due no harm?,”,,there are 30,000 commentores forced to suffer in physical pain from medical illness because of parents,governmnent official like cdc’s klondyne who are sooo full of themselves the arrogance stinks,,It is physically impossible for anyone to physically feel the physical pain of another from medical illness,,,Thus NO-ONE has this divine rite to decide who suffers in physical; pain and who does not from medical illness,,,,but our govermet is now playing Dr.Government ,inturn they are willfully committing torture and genocide onto all the medically ill who’s medical condition requires the MEDICINE OF A OPIATE,OR MEDICINE OF A VALIUM TO CONTROL THE MEDICAL ILLNESS!!! IT IS SICKING WHAT IS HAppening to all the medically ill in the United Staes,,,it is archaic,cruel and inhumane what Dr.Government is doing to the medically ill in this so-call ,”free” country!!maryw