The optimism in Ashley Eggleston’s smile is heartbreaking.
She’s grinning for a Facebook selfie she tagged with a vote of confidence on April 30: “Moving Forward (with) the occasion(al) slip-ups & remaining focused. Mind over matter.’’
A vibrant young woman who loved making crafts, Eggleston of Bassett, Va., had tried over and over since 2018 to kick painkillers and heroin.
In December, she posted to Facebook a photo of herself sitting in the Emergency Department waiting room of Martinsville’s Sovah Health hospital. The 24-year-old former cheerleader’s friends responded, congratulating her for being there and trying to get clean. One friend even recommended a suboxone program that had helped her find sobriety.
Blonde and petite, Eggleston had fallen deep into opioid addiction by age 21, said her mother Amanda Linster, also of Bassett. And a pathway of pills led to a near-deadly heroin habit and dependency on methamphetamine.
Linster said she had prepared herself for the possibility that Eggleston might die from an overdose. Her daughter had nearly passed away twice from heroin overdoses in recent years.
And Linster said she had prayed often that Eggleston might end up in jail so she would be compelled by the courts to enter rehab.
Never, though, had Linster expected her daughter would end her own life in a jail cell.
But on the morning of Feb. 3, Eggleston hanged herself at the Rockingham County Detention Center.
Arrested on Feb. 2 in Eden for possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, Eggleston would be the first of three heroin-addicted offenders under 30 to commit suicide at the jail during February.
For the past few weeks, Linster said she has tried to patch together just how her daughter became desperate enough to take her own life.
“She had never spent much time in jail. She had only been arrested once before … and just held for 24 hours (in Henry County, Va.),’’ Linster said during a phone interview. “But my baby girl was locked up (in Rockingham County) for nearly 80 hours and never got to walk … to walk around … or even shower.’’
Jail officials told Linster that COVID-19 safety restrictions have made it necessary for all inmates to be quarantined in their cells for their first 72 hours in jail.
Such a quarantine, “... doesn’t mean the jail staff has done anything wrong. They’re taking reasonable steps to avoid the spread of COVID,’’ said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice-president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association in Raleigh.
Jails, like the rest of society, have faced major stresses because of the pandemic, Caldwell noted.
By her mother’s calculation, Eggleston would have completed her 72-hour quarantine around 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 4 and would have been eligible to walk around or shower first thing that morning.
But at 9:30 a.m. that day, guards discovered Eggleston had committed suicide by hanging and rushed her to a local hospital, according to the sheriff’s office. Eggleston was pronounced dead a day later at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro.
Screening for risk
While jail officials and Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page have said that all inmates are carefully screened for mental health issues through a five-step process, Linster contends her daughter slipped through an inadequate system.
Linster said she had expected her daughter to be watched closely for withdrawal from heroin and meth and the physical and psychological changes that come with a cold turkey cut off of drugs.
Instead, Eggleston was housed alone in a cell where she would have been checked twice each hour by detention officers, according to jail cell check policies in place in early February.
But Caldwell points out that a high percentage of inmates suffer with substance abuse and that there is no practical way a county jail staff can be expected to anticipate all mental health crises. And even with rigorous screenings, inmates may not be candid about their emotional status, Caldwell said.
If every inmate in a jail had an officer assigned to watch them 24 hours a day, an inmate intent on committing suicide would find an opportunity, even in a brief window such as a detention officer’s bathroom break, Caldwell said.
Even an inmate being monitored on camera can find opportunity to end his life if his mind is set on doing so, Caldwell said. In one North Carolina jail an inmate was monitored with cameras and had four in-person checks per hour, but still managed to end his life by taking action immediately after being checked by guards. “It only takes a minute,’’ Caldwell said. “Even on close watch, there’ s no guarantee.’’
Jail suicides are “the bitter end of a long series of societal failures,’’ Caldwell said, adding, “Sheriffs would like to have no suicides. But jail is often the facility of last resort after the failings of other parts of our society.’’
Page said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference that he will contact health officials with local hospitals for guidance in better identifying individuals at risk for suicidal behavior.
The sheriff will possibly add staff to its group of 38 detention workers, Page said during the press conference. Ten officers currently work the jail’s day shift, while nine work at night, Page said.
A national and regional drug crisis
Eggleston is but one of thousands of young people across the nation who have lost their way with opioids and narcotics, such as heroin and Fentanyl. Over the past few years, Rockingham has seen a dramatic increase in deaths and overdoses related to the drugs.
And in Eggleston’s native Henry County, Va., which borders Rockingham, officials have recorded the highest incidence of opioid use and overdoses in the Commonwealth.
Drug overdose calls to Rockingham County Emergency Services have more than doubled during the pandemic, compared to 2019, sheriff’s office statistics show.
From March 1-July 31, 2019, authorities responded to 41 suspected overdose calls. In 2020, the number rose to 91 during the same time span.
Between March 1 and Aug. 5, 2019, Rockingham County EMS administered 111 doses of Narcan — an overdose medication — to 74 patients, said agency spokesman Justin Stewart.
First responders administered 212 Narcan doses to 143 patients in Rockingham during that time frame in 2020.
Statistics for late 2020 and 2021 were not immediately available.
Eggleston functioned on pills, but heroin derailed her life
Through tears, Linster spoke of her deep love for her “strong-willed” daughter, a young woman who while using opiate painkillers was able to function well enough to have her own place and keep a steady job.
“Ashley worked hard … she waitressed, had her own apartment, her own car, paid her bills,’’ Linster said. “She didn’t let the pain pills control her life, but it was a gateway to the heroin and that did control her life.’’
In recent months, Eggleston had spent time at her mother’s home, lived in motel rooms and even slept in her car.
On several occasions, she tried to detox at home with her mother, Linster said. But each time, after about 48 hours, Eggleston would become violently ill with vomiting and agitation, her mother said, describing how heroin had ravaged her daughter’s arms with an abscess and track marks.
In December and January, Eggleston tried in earnest to stop using heroin, Linster said. “She was trying to wean herself off of it and I think that’s why she was using meth.’’
Mother still has questions about her daughter’s time in jail
After her daughter’s funeral, Linster said she met with Capt. Shane Bullins, who heads the Rockingham jail, to ask questions about her daughter’s stay.
“I asked about her temperament while she was there and whether she ate,’’ Linster said. “He said yes, that she ate fine, and yes, that she was on good behavior with them. But that didn’t make sense to me because she would have been withdrawing. And she could get angry and lash out with that. And she wouldn’t have been able to eat,’’ Linster said.
The sheriff’s office would not comment on Eggleston’s medical details because of privacy law and because the case is under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, a standard procedure.
Since 2018, Linster had sent her daughter to two drug rehab facilities and had paid to have her live in a “sober house’’ in Richmond for several months with other clean addicts.
And 2018 had been particularly hellish for Linster, she said, explaining that during one month that year, Eggleston overdosed twice and was revived by the antidote Narcan both times.
The first time she OD’d, Eggleston was left unconscious in a car in the middle of Bassett. Her friends gambled on authorities finding her and getting medical help, Linster said.
“She would wanna stop … and she would start getting better, but it didn’t last,’’ Linster said.
While Bullins would not discuss with Linster the exact way that Eggleston committed suicide, Linster said it is clear to her that her daughter used something to hang herself.
“She had a mark on her neck,’’ said Linster, who saw her daughter briefly at Cone before Eggleston was removed from life support.
Linster said authorities told her that medical personnel had administered CPR for more than an hour to obtain only a “faint pulse” and that Eggleston’s self-harm had resulted in severe swelling of her brain.
Originally taken to Annie Penn Hospital on Feb. 3, Eggleston was ultimately transported to Cone where she was pronounced dead on Feb. 4.
A final visit
“Ashley was here Monday during the day (the day before her arrest) and we rode around and we got to hang out,’’ Linster said. “She was always strong-willed but would literally help anybody do anything. She was very compassionate,’’ Linster said.
The news that Seth King, 25, of Reidsville, and Cameron Chance, 29, of Elon, N.C., had also taken their lives at the jail in February, came as a shock to Linster.
“I mean they are treating drug addicts like criminals … especially these young kids when the opioid crisis is so terrible. Ashley was in possession of a drug. She wasn’t hurting anyone else or stealing anything,’’ Linster said.
“There’s a mother who loved her,’’ Linster said. “She always knew what was right and she just unfortunately got addicted to something that was a hard fight for her.’’