Crime & Courts

Mecklenburg County jail inmate overdosed on fentanyl inside the jail, autopsy says

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Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood is coordinating with local police departments and other community partners to start the Coordinated Opioid Overdose Reduction Effort -- a program aimed at helping addicts get clean and taking down dealers.
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Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood is coordinating with local police departments and other community partners to start the Coordinated Opioid Overdose Reduction Effort -- a program aimed at helping addicts get clean and taking down dealers.

A Mecklenburg County jail inmate died of an overdose in April, according to newly released autopsy documents obtained by the Observer.

Michael Trent, 44, had been in jail since August 2018, according to jail records. He was found unresponsive early in the morning on April 2 and was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to a statement from the jail that day.

He had fentanyl in his blood, and the Mecklenburg County medical examiner found that he died from fentanyl toxicity, according to autopsy documents.

That means he used fentanyl minutes or hours before his death, Duke University School of Medicine professor Larry Greenblatt said.

The sheriff’s office is not sure how Trent obtained fentanyl in the jail, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tonya Rivens said.

“What we suspect is that illegal substances have gotten into our detention center through the body cavities of arrestees,” Rivens said.

People who enter the jail are frisked, Rivens said, but those searches don’t detect items inside their bodies.

Two Mecklenburg County inmates died of fentanyl overdoses in 2018, according to jail officials, and three more died by suicide. Trent is the only person who has died at the jail in 2019, since Sheriff Garry McFadden took over the jails.

Greenblatt said people who’ve just left jails and prisons are at particularly high risk for overdoses.

A person’s craving for drugs might stay at the same level through all the months of their incarceration, Greenblatt said, but their tolerance falls without regular use. A dose that would not have been fatal before incarceration could become fatal, he said.

And fentanyl is commonly mixed into heroin, Greenblatt said, so Trent might not have known what he was taking.

Jail officials said Trent was alive at 4:49 a.m. on April 2 and was found in distress 13 minutes later, according to a report on his death filed with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Substance abuse disorders are common among jail and prison inmates, Greenblatt said.

“Often that’s directly related to why they’re incarcerated,” he said.

Trent was in jail because he had pending federal charges for carjacking and possession of a firearm by a felon, but drug crimes are part of his North Carolina criminal history, according to public records. He was found guilty of felony possession of cocaine in 2017 and had an earlier conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia.

Greenblatt said drug treatment programs in jails could make a difference.

About 50 to 60 Mecklenburg County Jail inmates are undergoing substance abuse treatment in jail, Rivens said. The jail’s program involves a modified 12-step approach, according to the sheriff’s office website.

The county’s two jails have a combined capacity of 2,518, according to the sheriff’s office website.

Rivens said she could not say whether Trent was receiving substance abuse treatment at the jail.

To try to resolve the issue of drugs entering the jail in people’s body cavities, Rivens said the sheriff’s office has bought a $130,000 body scanner.

The scanner, which would help jail officials keep people safe without performing invasive body cavity searches, has not been delivered yet, she said.

Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.

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