“We won’t let him die.”
Those are the exact words Caroline Harrington remembers hearing from a nurse in the Victoria County Jail who was responsible for overseeing her grandson, Clinton Harrington.
In fall 2018, the 32-year-old was jailed for drug possession. He’d struggled with addiction, his grandmother said, and was taking methadone, a drug used to treat severe pain and dependence on opioids like heroin.
Day and night, Harrington worried about her grandson. She wanted him to get off methadone but knew people could die of complications caused by withdrawal if they didn’t get proper care.
Time, however, would prove that her worst fear would become a reality.
Three months after his death, Harrington and her husband, Larry, spent Monday morning sharing their tragic experience with county commissioners, who are currently weighing whether to extend a contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch, which has provided medical care in the county jail since March 2017. UTMB has proposed raising the cost of its yearly contract from roughly $1.07 million to $1.325 million – a jump of about 24 percent.
A spokesman for UTMB declined to comment about the case, citing a law that protects patients’ medical information. In a statement, Chief Deputy Roy Boyd said the sheriff’s office will have more answers once the Texas Rangers, which generally investigates jail deaths, finishes examining Harrington’s death.
“Details, such as autopsy reports, are not available to the (Victoria County Sheriff’s Office) while the Rangers are conducting their investigation,” Boyd said. “We await the final results of the investigation so we can make an examination of the events leading up to the death of Mr. Harrington.”
Harrington died Oct. 18, 2018 – the third inmate to die in jail custody in less than three years, according to state records. In July 2017, Michael Anthony Rivera, 34, died hours after being arrested; officials suspected he ingested methamphetamine so he wouldn’t be arrested for it. The year before, Barrett Ryan Goedrich, 19, died of a methadone overdose a day after he was booked in the jail.
Officials ordered an autopsy to examine why Harrington died, but the report hasn’t been released yet. A preliminary report on the state Attorney General‘s website said he died of natural causes, but didn’t give more details.
The AG report said Harrington was often housed in the jail’s medical unit because of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, scoliosis and his methadone treatment. Harrington, who had two major back surgeries, became addicted to pain pills when he tried to deal with chronic pain, his grandmother said.
On the day he died, Harrington was in the jail’s medical unit, sharing a cell with another inmate. He ate lunch like usual. But a jail supervisor warned medical staff that his behavior didn’t seem normal. The medical staff, however, didn’t agree, according to the report.
The rest of the afternoon, Harrington sat or lay down on his bunk, constantly twitching or moving parts of his body. Then, just before 6 p.m., his cellmate called for help. Jail supervisors and medical staff arrived and started chest compressions. But it was too late. Harrington was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.
During their emotional testimony to commissioners Monday, Harrington’s grandparents alleged that the jail’s medical team failed to take the necessary steps to prevent their grandson’s death, including sending him to a local hospital and properly treating his possible withdrawal from methadone. They urged county commissioners, who approve the contracts to provide medical care in the jail, to demand answers.
“I’m not a professional in law enforcement; I’m not a professional in the medical stuff,” Larry Harrington said. “But I can recognize when I see somebody in withdrawal.”
Ever since Harrington’s death, his grandmother has had a hard time sleeping, she said while fighting back tears.
“I was the only person that he would call … on the phone all the time,” Caroline Harrington said. “We were very close.”
After listening to the Harringtons, Commissioner Clint Ives said the commissioners should scrutinize the contract with the medical provider by examining both its costs and effectiveness in providing medical care. After a short discussion, commissioners agreed to invite both UTMB and the sheriff’s office to discuss the contract and care in the jail during a meeting in the near future.
“Just take a step back and analyze the program like we would any other,” Ives said. “The last thing we need is more of the episode that played out with that young man.”