Philadelphia Prison

Cause of Death Remains Unclear After Man Dies in Philadelphia Prison

53-year-old Ed Zaleski had struggled with opioid addiction since his 20s when he received a Percocet prescription for back pain. Over the years he had several relapses and was in and out of prison, but still tried to be a good role model for his stepsons.

At the time of his final arrest, there was no indication that he was in mortal danger.

As reported by WHYY, Philadelphia’s medical examiner has yet to rule on the cause and manner of Zaleski’s death, and toxicology results are still pending.

But the mystery of what happened during his last hours torments his grieving family. They learned from the medical examiner’s office that Zaleski, 53, told intake staff he had done four bags of heroin shortly before his arrest and was suffering symptoms of withdrawal.

“He must have been pretty acutely ill to die in four hours. You can’t ignore that. You can’t just not see that — someone who is that acutely ill that he’s going to die in four hours,” said his former girlfriend Holly, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect the two teenage sons she and Zaleski share.

As the opioid crisis continues, prisons nationally are seeing a spike in the number of prisoners struggling with addiction issues. In Philadelphia, for example, at least three-quarters of the 28,000 people who spend some time in the city’s six prisons in 2017 had a history of substance abuse, according to Bruce Herdman, the prison system’s chief of medical operations. Nationally, two-thirds of jail inmates ages 18 to 24 use drugs, according to a recent federal study.

That has forced many corrections authorities to beef up screening, treatment, and prevention efforts.

But one prison health expert says a bigger question looms.

“Why are we locking all these people up for addiction?” asked Josiah D. “Jody” Rich, director and co-founder of The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island and a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University. “The thinking goes: You do the crime, so do the time. And that’s the end of the thinking.

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To learn more about how the Philadelphia prison system is impacted by the opioid crisis, please visit WHYY.

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