Man Jailed Over a Marijuana Cookie Died After Seizure in Prison

Family files lawsuit after surveillance footage shows staff failing to get him medical help.


Gwinnett County Jail footage
Gwinnett County Jail footage

Chris Howard, 23, was booked into the Gwinnett County, Georgia, jail in February 2017 after testing positive for marijuana while on probation for a drunk driving arrest. According to a local news report, he had shared a marijuana cookie with his girlfriend on Valentine's Day.

On February 15, Howard had a seizure and went into convulsions while in a holding cell. Surveillance video shows several jail deputies forcefully holding Howard down. The deputies subsequently claimed that Howard was being "aggressive," something I couldn't see in any of the surveillance footage that has been released, all of which shows Howard on the ground.

Eventually, Howard was removed from the holding tank but rather than being brought someplace to receive medical treatment, he's put in a separate jail cell and left there for at least 30 minutes. Surveillance footage from the cell shows Howard, not raging or acting aggressive, writhing around on the floor in apparent pain and occasionally managing to get to his knees and beat on the door in an attempt to get somebody to help him.

In the video, Howard is finally removed from the cell, but according to the lawsuit, deputies still didn't get Howard medical care because jail policy required him to be in a jail uniform before he could see a facility care provider. Howard hadn't yet been processed, so there was another delay where they had to change Howard's clothes. He was so weak at this point that two deputies needed to assist him.

By the time deputies got Howard to the medical facility within the jail, his condition had deteriorated to the point that medical staff told them Howard needed to go to the hospital. "Y'all brought a dead man," one member of the medical team told the deputies, the lawsuit claims.

Howard was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center, where doctors determined he had gone into cardiac arrest. He never regained consciousness, and died in the hospital.

All of this over a marijuana cookie.

Howard's treatment at the jail is not an anomaly, say many people who have spent time there. In December, a class-action lawsuit was filed representing 75 people who have been detained at Gwinnett County Jail, accusing the jail's "Rapid Response Team" (the same team who responded to Howard's seizure) of excessive force and violating the rights of detainees.

The jail has been subject to other lawsuits and investigations because of the Rapid Response Team. A federal grand jury has requested records about the use of force there. A deputy resigned last year and was charged with battery after punching a mentally ill inmate several times in the head.

This is not a maximum security facility housing the hardest of the hardcore. It's a regular county jail, and many of its occupants have not been convicted. The Netflix documentary First and Last, which I reviewed here in October, tracked the lives of several people who were either being processed into the jail or leaving the jail after serving short sentences. Like Howard, many people in the jail are there for minor drug-related probation violations. There were several people in the documentary who were serving sentences in jail entirely for marijuana use. As I wrote in my review, First and Last does a terrible job of addressing jail abuses, and in six episodes, does not once reference the troubled Rapid Response Team.

The surveillance videos are difficult to watch, even without any sound. That this was the end for Chris Howard is a tragedy, and the result of our foolishly ruthless drug war.

You can read the lawsuit here.