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Drug Addict Kills Self in Van Nuys Jail : Heroin Withdrawal Drives Woman to Commit Suicide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She spent her last days at the Van Nuys jail pleading that the pain was overwhelming her frail body. Kathleen Barkley was going through heroin withdrawal, and it was driving her crazy.

Dora, a woman housed in the neighboring jail cell, said Barkley had begged jail officers to get her medical treatment. Police, who acknowledge that Barkley asked for assistance, said they did provide Barkley some medical treatment, although they decline to specify what is was.

Even so, sometime before 3 a.m. Tuesday, while her five other cellmates slept, 35-year-old Barkley wrapped a telephone cord around her neck, fell to her knees and choked herself to death, police said.

Lt. Tony Alba, commanding officer of LAPD press relations, said jail personnel had processed Barkley and assessed her condition, using established procedures. Alba said that, under LAPD policy, the on-site medical professional at each jail can determine whether an inmate requires medical attention. Some conditions or injuries, such as serious wounds, almost automatically mean a trip to the jail ward at County-USC Medical Center.

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But Alba said most heroin withdrawals are not classified as emergencies.

Barkley, of Valencia, had been arrested Friday in North Hills on suspicion of prostitution, said Officer Eduardo Funes, another LAPD spokesman.

“If the person in custody needs medical treatment they can get it,” Funes said. “There’s a medical person there at the Van Nuys jail. I just don’t know if heroin addiction qualifies as something that needs medical treatment.”

Drug abuse experts said Tuesday that addicts experiencing heroin withdrawal often require serious treatment, although deaths are rare.

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“When you’re withdrawing from heroin, it’s uncomfortable,” said Linda Rodriguez, a former heroin addict and drug and alcohol counselor at the Tarzana Treatment Center. “It gets to the point where you would want to kill yourself. You might feel like you will die. You get diarrhea, become nauseous, your back starts hurting, your bones ache and you can break into a cold sweat. The first three days are really bad.”

Kathleen Barkley killed herself exactly three days after being picked up by police.

Dora, the woman who saw jail officers haul Barkley’s body away on a gurney, said she had just called a friend to bail her out when a female jail officer discovered Barkley’s naked body in the cell at 2:50 a.m. Officers at the Van Nuys jail perform cell checks every 30 minutes.

Dora, who declined to give her last name, spoke with a reporter after she was released from the jail Tuesday afternoon.

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Walter Rabe, a drug rehabilitation counselor, said he understands the kind of trauma Barkley probably experienced. Four years ago in Monrovia, Rabe’s ex-wife did the same thing as Barkley, killing herself after suffering through heroin withdrawal and a lifetime of physical and emotional pain after using the drug. Rabe, who said he had been in and out of jail for heroin addiction since the 1950s, said officers face a dilemma when handling heroin-addicted prisoners.

“There are probably 200 or 300 addicts picked up a week in the Los Angeles area,” said Rabe, who works at Cri-Help, a drug and alcohol treatment center in North Hollywood.

Both Rabe and Rodriguez said health care facilities can usually treat heroin withdrawal patients with methadone, a synthetic drug that eases the symptoms of addiction, or clonidine, a drug that lowers blood pressure and calms the patient.

Rodriguez would not comment Tuesday on the specifics of Barkley’s death, but said she believes, partly from personal experience, that some police officers don’t know how to deal with addicts in jail.

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“I think they should do something in jail to help them,” said Rodriguez, who said she spent many a night in jail experiencing withdrawal before overcoming her habit. “But the system doesn’t care because the people are on drugs. Police have become so hardened to addicts complaining because they deal with them all the time.”


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