The ACLU of Massachusetts, together with Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and law firm Goulston & Storrs, today filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the family of Madelyn Linsenmeir for her wrongful death while in state custody. According to the complaint, the young mother’s pain, suffering, and death were caused by the Springfield Police Department (SPD) and Hampden County Sheriff’s Department’s (HCSD) failure to provide medical treatment.

Madelyn Linsenmeir was arrested by Springfield police in late September 2018. Videos from the Springfield Police Department booking area show Linsenmeir crying out in pain and requesting medical care for chest pain, difficulty breathing, and swelling in her knee and feet. The videos make clear that she was desperately trying to convince an indifferent audience of her urgent need for medical care. Nearly a week later, while in the custody of the HCSD, she died from an otherwise treatable illness arising from an infected heart valve.

Linsenmeir’s life story attracted international attention after her obituary, which candidly describes her struggle with opioid addiction, went viral on social media and was covered by news outlets around the world. The obituary described the stigma experienced by people with the disease of addiction and called for empathy during this public health crisis. The circumstances of Linsenmeir’s death while in custody have shed further light on the mistreatment of people with opioid use disorder and compounded the family’s grief.

“Our family is heartbroken to have lost our beloved girl and deeply troubled by her unnecessary, preventable death,” said the family. “We fear for others in her situation and call on the City and the Sheriff’s Department to provide assurances that people currently in their custody are being treated humanely, with access to trained clinicians who can evaluate prisoners and provide appropriate medical care.”

After her arrest and transfer to HCSD custody, Linsenmeir was found unresponsive at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center. Within hours of her arrival at a local hospital, medical staff diagnosed her with a heart infection and other illnesses. It was too late, however, for her to be successfully treated. She died on October 7, 2018, still at the hospital and in the custody of the HCSD.

“There is no excuse for Madelyn Linsenmeir’s mistreatment and subsequent death,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Police are accountable for the safety, health, and well-being of all people in custody. People in jails and prisons do not forfeit their right to adequate, timely health care just because they are behind bars—and people suffering from addiction deserve just treatment.”

According to the complaint, Linsenmeir was denied her constitutional right to medical care. The City of Springfield’s policies and practices send a message that SPD officers can violate the rights of others with impunity. In Linsenmeir’s case, the SPD and City attempted to shield its employees’ misconduct in her death by initially providing false information in response to an ACLU public records request and coaching officers through an internal investigation, among other things.

“Substance use disorder is a disease, and it is legally and morally indefensible for law enforcement agencies to deny appropriate medical care to prisoners with substance use disorder based on prejudice and stereotypes about people who suffer from it,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.

“In Maddie’s name, we will continue to advocate for the humane treatment of people everywhere who struggle with substance use disorder, especially those who are at the mercy of a criminal justice system that is clearly not equipped to respond to the opioid crisis,” said her family.