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MITCHELL: Man’s death from fentanyl, in jail custody, raises concerns

Rosemary Phelan, of Steger, holds a photo of her son, Michael, who died in Cook County Jail. The family is looking for answers. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Michael Phelan had it bad.

So bad, a judge twice ordered the 28-year-old to drug rehab. But each time, there was a weeklong waiting list.

A week would seem like an eternity to an addict.

When Phelan was found sleeping in someone else’s car in May, he was arrested and charged with trespassing.

Because Phelan was on parole at the time for a home burglary, he was also smacked with a theft charge for taking a 25-cent water flavoring packet from the vehicle.

OPINION

His drug of choice was crack.

But on Sept. 29, while locked up in Cook County Jail, Phelan died of a fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl is one of the strongest opiate drugs in the market.

“I honestly didn’t know a person could get drugs like that in jail,” said Phelan’s mother, Rosemary Phelan.

Michael’s cellmate met with Michael’s mother, and allegedly said her son got the drugs from another prisoner, thinking it was heroin.

The cellmate did not want to be identified for this story.

Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said as of Dec. 11, the jail had 151 instances of recovered contraband from detainees; 108 involved suspected drugs.

She pointed out that while diligent, Cook County Jail does not do strip searches.

“Everyone that comes in our custody has been in the custody of another jurisdiction. The problem is that a very, very small amount of fentanyl can be deadly, and it can be secreted in a detainees’ anus and not be detected,” Smith said.

“We are trying to identify the source of the drugs that Michael got his hands on,” she said.

Rosemary Phelan said the cellmate told her that guards didn’t do anything to help Michael during the fatal episode.

“He told me Michael was struggling to breathe and he got Michael down from the top bunk and blood was coming out of his mouth and his nose,” the mother said.

The cellmate claimed he “rolled Michael on his side” and called for the guards, but the guards wouldn’t touch the overdosing man because they “didn’t have gloves,” Rosemary Phelan said.

“Why on God’s green earth when someone is dying right in front of you, these guards are not trained to do CPR? Why didn’t they have gloves? Did they just stand there and gawk?” she asked.

Smith disputed the cellmate’s characterization.

“The guards got there and called medical right away. They [paramedics] got there and administered Narcan. Unfortunately, they were not successful,” she said, adding that the jail is in the process of training all officers to use Narcan, an opioid reversal drug.

“Detainees will often try to confuse the facts and distract investigators from their probable involvement in contraband coming into and being distributed within the jail,” she said.

Of the 10 in custody deaths this year, two deaths were drug related, according to Smith.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. Opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl, killed 33,000 people in 2015, according to the Centers or Disease Control and Prevention.

Rosemary Phelan said her son was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder when he was 12, and has struggled throughout his adult life with an addiction to crack.

“He should have been in the medical part of the jail because he was a drug addict,” Phelan said.

She wants to see the video recording of the guards’ response to her son’s overdose. Smith said the sheriff’s office is willing to honor that request.

“I want to know what the guards did other than calling the paramedics. I want to know if they just stood there and just watched, and if they did then why? Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to save a life?” she asked.