Homeless Nashua man's death in jail ruled fentanyl OD; Jail superintendent says he shouldn't have been there
MANCHESTER — Jeffrey Pendleton, the homeless Nashua man found dead last month in his cell at the Valley Street jail, died from a fatal overdose of fentanyl, according to the New Hampshire Medical Examiner.
Pendleton, 26, had been incarcerated in the Hillsborough County jail for at least four days when he was found unresponsive in his cell March 13. A next-day autopsy was inconclusive until toxicology results were received this week.
Dr. Jennie Duval, the deputy medical examiner, ruled the death accidental and attributed it to “acute fentanyl intoxication.”
One of Pendleton’s co-workers said he was surprised to hear about the fentanyl. Pendleton always made it to work and never under the influence of drugs, said Rob Mercier, a manager at the Nashua Burger King who is active in the Fight for $15 minimum wage movement, as was Pendleton.
“Everyone deals with their own demons. Deep down he was a good person,” Mercier said.
Pendleton was being held on $100 cash bail following his arrest for marijuana possession and not paying a $200 court fine.
On Wednesday, Hillsborough County Corrections Superintendent David Dionne said Pendleton did not deserve to be in jail.
He noted that the chief judge of the state’s circuit court system has questioned the use of cash bail to keep poor people in jail while they wait for trial. Judge Edwin Kelly’s remarks were reported Monday in the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“I think Judge Kelly’s on the right track,” Dionne said. “They’re going to be here for 20 days, and that $100 (bail) is going to cost me thousands.”
On Wednesday, his jail held 31 people on bail amounts lower than $1,000 on charges alleging non-violent crimes. The charges include drug possession, prostitution, trespassing, motor vehicle offenses and burglary.
Dionne said some will find life worse once they leave jail. Mentally ill inmates, for example, lose their government assistance checks and access to medical care because they have been jailed.
They are then forced to reapply for their benefits. “They’re going to get worse while they’re out there waiting,” Dionne said. They often end up back in jail.
He said Pendleton is the second person to overdose in the Valley Street jail this year; the other inmate was revived. There were no overdoses in 2015, he said. The last death in the Hillsborough County system took place in August 2014, when an inmate on home release overdosed, he said.
Dionne said most drugs get into the jail via inmates. Some ingest drugs bagged in latex and then expel them in a couple of days. Others carry drugs in body cavities.
Pendleton, who had a history of arrests for petty, non-violent crimes in the Nashua area, was arrested March 8 on a charge of marijuana possession and nonpayment of $200 in court fines.
A judge set his bail at $100.
Nashua Police Chief Andrew Lavoie said his department did everything correctly when officers arrested Pendleton.
“The key word here is warrant issued by the court,” Lavoie said. “We don’t have a choice in that. We’re commanded to bring him before a judge.”
Lavoie disagreed with Dionne and said cash bail is necessary.
“It’s there for a reason. If you have no penalties, why show up in court? Why bother?” Lavoie said.
Last year, Pendleton and the New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued Hudson police for $37,500 for arresting him on charges related to panhandling.
He also won a $15,000 settlement from Nashua police for jailing him for 33 days awaiting trial on a “no trespass” order that forbade him from city property.
Pendleton died the day before the U.S. Justice Department wrote judges across the country to alert them about issues the poor face in the criminal justice system.
The letter said that courts cannot use arrest warrants to prod people to pay fines, that alternatives to fines should be considered for the poor, and bail should not be used to jail poor people who cannot pay fines.