GOOCHLAND, VA. – Victoria Addison was sifting through boxes of her biological mother’s belongings from prison when she came across the handwritten pleas for help.
“I still can’t keep anything down and my throat is still hurting me,” Jennifer Addison, 44, wrote March 6 on an emergency grievance form inside the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland. “I need some help please.”
Two days later, Jennifer was dead. She had been serving a sentence for credit card fraud in Virginia Beach and was due to be released in about three months.
“She was denied help, begging for it,” Victoria said. “She deserved help. She wasn’t there to die.”
Victoria, 25, had a long and complicated relationship with her biological mother, but when she found the neatly filled-out forms from prison, she was horrified. She’d already suspected there was more to Jennifer’s story than what she’d been told.
“To be honest, it’s because there have been a lot of other stories about inmates just dying in prisons and it made me wonder what happened,” Victoria said.
Jennifer Addison’s death fits into a broad pattern of problems with health care at jails and prisons in Virginia, as well as specific concerns about the handling of grievance forms submitted by inmates in need of medical care.
Her case mirrors that of Henry Stewart, who died in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in August 2016 after filling out forms begging for help. Stewart, 60, was locked up for violating probation on a shoplifting charge. His requests were denied, according to a man incarcerated there at the time and documentation provided to The Virginian-Pilot by his family.
After Stewart’s death, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for more jail oversight, and state Attorney General Mark Herring requested a Justice Department investigation, which is ongoing.
Another state prison just 35 miles from Goochland, the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, has been under a federal court order since 2016 to improve its health care because of deaths like Addison’s. This summer the DOC was dragged back into court by the inmate plaintiffs, who alleged that Fluvanna was still not meeting inmates’ medical needs. A five-day bench trial was held in June. The judge has yet to issue a ruling.
The Pilot contacted the offices of Gov. Ralph Northam, state Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, state Attorney General Herring and the Virginia Department of Corrections seeking comment about what happened to Addison and about the DOC’s ongoing health care problems.
A spokeswoman for Herring’s office referred questions to the Department of Corrections. “Every death is a serious matter and should be treated as such,” she said in an email.
Northam and Moran’s offices did not respond.
“We take our constitutional duty to provide health care to the incarcerated population very seriously,” DOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney wrote in an email. “Generally speaking, offenders often come to Virginia’s prisons having never had much contact with health care providers, and are receiving the first regular, continuous health care of their lives in prison. Offenders tend to be sicker than the general population when they come to us, and sometimes have chronic conditions that haven’t been addressed on the outside.”
People who have no political power are easy to ignore, said Deborah Golden, a prisoners’ rights attorney at the Human Rights Defense Center.
“It’s about deciding that some people’s lives aren’t worth it,” she said. “It’s the system as a whole, but I think that there are specific individuals who could change that.”
The three forms filled out by Jennifer Addison were tucked in among romance novels, drawings and other possessions that Victoria received in the mail after her biological mother’s death.
Had Jennifer not written down her requests for help – and kept a copy of each form – there would likely be no indication of what really happened to her in her final days.
The first form was a request for medical attention on March 4, four days before she died.
“My throat is sora(sic), Im having hot/cold sweats, and throwing up everything I eat or drink. This has been going on since Monday 26, of last month,” she wrote.
On an emergency grievance form two days later, Jennifer again asked for help and described her interaction with prison staff the night before.
“I’ve been sick for almost a week and our night offier(sic) Ms. Seaberry called medical and nurse Smith has seen me and told me that she can’t do anything for me at 10:00 p.m.,” she wrote. “But she will give me cough medinie and Tyleal(sic) and put me in to see Dr. John today, I have told her Ive already put a sick call slip in. I still can’t keep anything down and my throat is still hurting me. I need some help please.”
More than three hours after the form was turned in, a nurse checked two boxes in the staff response portion. The first was next to the sentence “Your grievance does not meet the definition for an emergency.”
The second: “Submit Sick Call Request.”
On the last full day of her life Jennifer filled out a third form – a permission slip to miss a group activity.
“Sore Thorat(sic), Throwing up, hardly able to talk,” she wrote. “I Have put a sick call.”
At around 11:45 that night, prison staff found her unresponsive in her cell.
They tried to resuscitate her, then took her to the West Creek Emergency Center. She was pronounced dead in the emergency room at 1:25 a.m. on March 8, according to the autopsy, which said she had been coughing up blood.
Jennifer had also hurt herself not long before she died, the autopsy revealed. There were several unclosed, healing cuts on her left wrist. Her cause of death is listed as the flu and MRSA – a bacterial infection resistant to many antibiotics, which led to a blood infection.
“She shouldn’t have died of that. That’s totally treatable. … That’s outrageous,” Golden said. “Anyone who wasn’t holding food down for six days would have gone to the ER. She needed medical attention.”
Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional health consultant and affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said it appears that prison workers should have done more when they saw Jennifer’s grievance form.
“This is an inappropriate response to an emergency grievance request, especially in light that she already put in a sick call,” he said.
But he added that Addison’s medical record – which the DOC denied Victoria’s request to obtain – would be needed to accurately assess whether her life could have been saved.
“Was this a preventable death? It’s hard to tell,” Stern said.
The flu and bacterial complications are treatable, he said. “If you don’t get treatment at all, your chances of surviving are much poorer.”
It’s unclear whether Jennifer received any treatment. Stern added that he doesn’t believe the cuts on her wrist in any way led to her death.
“It typically takes days for a bacterial infection to develop from the flu,” Stern said. “This didn’t happen in an hour.”
Jennifer Addison was born in Georgia but grew up in Norfolk, drifting in and out of jails and prisons for most of her adult life.
Her mother had a drinking problem and worked as a prostitute. She brought home a parade of men, some of whom abused Jennifer, according to an undated letter Jennifer wrote that her family provided to The Pilot.
“When I told mom she would tell me that it was my fault and then she would take a belt buckle and beat me and as she is beating me she calls me names like slut, and Jezebel and that I was trying to take her man from her,” Jennifer wrote. “But it was nothing like that.”
Soon Jennifer followed in her mother’s footsteps, working as a prostitute and doing drugs, “living from hotel to hotel and going for days not caring about anything.”
She never found a way out of that life.
At 19, she was in jail and pregnant, and sought help from a Bible ministry.
Brenda Dain, a former police officer who has raised more than 28 children over the years as a foster mother, met Jennifer through a friend who told her that the teenager was looking to find her baby a home. Dain, a Chesapeake resident, volunteered to take her.
Victoria, now 25, was born a few weeks after her mother was released from jail. Jennifer, meanwhile, went into rehab but left soon afterward to go back on the streets, a cycle she would never break.
“When I did get out I tried to do better and I did for awhile but I got dored(sic) with that life and went back to do what I knew the only way to live,” she wrote. “And that was prostitute and drugs.”
Dain said she understands and agrees that people who commit crimes should be punished and shouldn’t expect indulgences while they’re locked up.
“I don’t think they should have the luxuries of home,” she said. “But everybody deserves to have medical care.”
Jennifer likely had untreated mental illness, she said, but did not appear to have other chronic medical conditions.
“Jennifer did nothing to get (the) death penalty for,” Dain said. “But she got it.”