Deadly withdrawal

Family of man who died at Morgan County Jail files suit alleging he was denied medical care

Mother Julie Downs, left, and brother Brandon Downs, right, with a photo of Brian Downs, who died in the Morgan County Jail while withdrawing from heroin.

Brian Downs wasn't just a person with an addiction; he was a loving son, a hard worker, a devoted brother, a good friend.

His mother, Julie Downs, wants people to know this about her son, who died April 25, 2022, in the Morgan County Jail of complications related to heroin withdrawal.

"Too often people are given labels like 'addict' and others think they are not fully human," she said.

Julie believes that is how her son was viewed by the jail staff who, she contends, removed him from the hospital against doctor's orders and watched him vomit more than 100 times over three days but failed to return him to the hospital.

In March, a federal lawsuit was filed by the Downs family against Morgan County.

"I want justice, and to me, justice is making sure this never happens to anyone else," she said.

Her lawyer, Richard Frazier, said the 40-year-old man was experiencing severe heroin withdrawal but jail officials failed to respond even as his condition became increasingly dire.

"Even a child knows if someone is vomiting blood they need medical care," Frazier told Illinois Times.

Morgan County Sheriff Mike Carmody declined to discuss the matter with the newspaper, citing the pending litigation.

The lawsuit contends Brian Downs' civil rights were denied through "willful and wanton conduct, institutional negligence and medical malpractice."

According to Jacksonville police reports, he was arrested at 1:43 p.m. April 22 in the 200 block of East Morton Avenue on charges of possession of a controlled substance and resisting or obstructing a peace officer.

He had been gaming at J.B. Hawks Discount Tobacco and Vape on East Morton Avenue with some friends, and the manager called police after finding a discarded syringe in a restroom. Officers recognized Brian from his history of illegal drug use.

Brandon Downs said his brother was targeted by police wherever he went in Jacksonville because of his history with drugs.

"He could be with me in his work clothes at a gas station, and the police would stop and hassle him. He was presumed guilty wherever he went," he said.

Because Brian lacked dental insurance, he didn't go to the dentist and his teeth became infected and painful, his mother said. "He started borrowing pain pills from friends, and we think that is when he got hooked on opioids," she said. From there, she said he progressed to heroin.

"It's Jacksonville, the northeast side. You probably can get heroin anywhere you want. Honestly, it's abundant everywhere," Julie said.

Despite his dependence on heroin, Brian worked hard.

"He worked in lots of restaurant kitchens. He was a great cook, and he was really well-liked by his coworkers and the public," Julie recalled.

His final job was outfitting new police cars with law-enforcement equipment such as sirens and emergency lights. The Greenfield-based business is owned by his brother, Brandon.

"I never viewed him as an addict because he never was disabled by any narcotic," Brandon said. "He may have done a shot of heroin in the morning and then he would function like the (most normal) human being. He'd be mowing the yard by 2 p.m. He'd go exercise, walk, take care of your dog, hang drywall, paint floors and do just about anything. When I think 'addict,' I think bum on the street."

Julie said Brian did at least three stints at drug rehabilitation centers. She contends his path to sobriety was hampered by not having health insurance.

"He did one stint in Jacksonville. He did twice in Bloomington. And those were both for heroin. I know that he attempted to get into rehab many more times. And that is a struggle. If you don't have insurance, Lord help you, because they do not take you. You are on a list, and if somebody with insurance comes up first, I believe they are taken before somebody who could be literally dying."

After each time in rehab, he would experience a period of sobriety, she said.

"He would do well, but he didn't know a stranger," Julie said. "He didn't want to not speak or hang out with people that might have been doing the wrong thing because he considered them all friends. ... He had a crap ton of friends, and I think he'd just get caught up in the moment. And if they started doing something, then he was inclined to maybe join them."

According to the lawsuit, at the time Brian was arrested, his "behavior was erratic and he was disoriented." Officers recognized that he was having severe heroin withdrawal and Brian was taken to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital, where a blood test showed the presence of heroin in his system, according to the lawsuit.

He was treated with the anti-anxiety drug Ativan. On orders of the correctional officers – and against medical advice – Brian was discharged from the hospital and returned to the jail, the lawsuit states.

"The reason the county did this is because they didn't want to end up paying for the medical care," Frazier said.

Frazier added the correctional officers were instructed by the medical professionals to return Brian to the emergency department if his confusion increased or his vomiting became more persistent.

Upon being returned to the jail, Brian was placed in a medical holding cell with a video camera. By the next afternoon, April 23, his condition had become worse and he began vomiting, the complaint said.

"Over the course of 34 hours, Brian vomited more than 100 times – including blood. During this time period, no employee of the jail notified a qualified health provider, nor did they transport Brian to the emergency department," the lawsuit said.

A nurse examined him midday April 24. He was prescribed Zofran to prevent nausea and vomiting, Bentyl to treat abdominal pain and spasms, the antihistamine Vistaril and a glass of water. Records do not reflect that Brian received any further medication, according to the complaint.

"Somebody gave them instructions not to give him any further medical care," Frazier said. "Those instructions were given to two different shifts. And we have no idea why."

Shortly after midnight on April 25, Brian collapsed in the jail's booking area. Jailers helped him to his feet and transferred him into a wheelchair. Ten minutes later, a Morgan County sheriff's deputy asked guards why Brian wasn't receiving medical care, according to the lawsuit.

"The jail staff informed him that they could not get an off-duty correctional officer to come to the jail to transport Brian to the hospital," the lawsuit filed by the family contends. The deputy "expressed alarm at this excuse" and prepared to transport Brian to the hospital in his patrol car.

But before that could happen, Brian died on the floor of the jail. An autopsy later determined that he had died from dehydration and septic shock as a result of a bowel obstruction amid opioid withdrawal syndrome. Illinois State Police conducted an investigation, but no charges were filed.

"Three days after his initial admission to the [jail] and approximately 52 hours after being locked in the medical holding cell, Brian collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. Brian died at the jail and his body was then transported to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital," according to the lawsuit.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at

About The Author

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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