Is Jail a Safe Place for a Heroin Addict?

It’s hard to watch a loved one suffer from drug abuse. Their drug of choice provides an escape from reality and a dizzying high that can’t be found in day-to-day life. Why would a drug abuser want to stop feeling so good? But from where you stand, on the outside looking in, you can see how the drug addiction affects their health, appearance, finances, relationships and more. Heroin, in particular, is a tremendously scary drug. Overdoses are common because users build up a tolerance to it, meaning more and more of the drug is needed in order to achieve the same high. There may be violence surrounding the distribution of heroin, or startling impurities in the drug, such as the recent addition of elephant tranquilizers to batches in the Ohio Valley area. You hate to see your loved one’s life being ruined by this drug, and yet you feel at a loss for what you can do to help. The heroin addict is simply not going to quit this powerful drug cold turkey and get her life back on track once you make your opinion known. If you feel at your wit’s end, you might actually begin to hope that your loved one will be arrested on heroin charges. In jail, at least she will get the help she needs. In jail, at least she will be safe. Right?

Jail Is a High Risk Environment for Heroin Addicts

Unfortunately, jail is not always a safe place for addicts. There are many reasons that compound this problem. First, if the addict herself is not arrested for crimes related to heroin use or possession, she may fail to mention her addiction to officers during processing. This means no one will be expecting her to enter a dangerous and sometimes lengthy withdrawal period. On the other hand, sometimes heroin addicts will be arrested for their illegal drug use or possession. In this case, withdrawal should be expected. However, as much as 50% of jails do not provide withdrawal support for drug addicts in prison, expecting inmates to “tough out” the withdrawal symptoms on their own. This tough love approach can regrettably lead to “detox death,” which occurs when the body does not receive supportive care through intense symptoms, such as constant vomiting or diarrhea. Anyone, drug addict or not, who experiences these symptoms is at risk of becoming dangerously dehydrated if fluids and electrolytes are not replaced. A hospital setting is appropriate for such supportive care; a jail is not. Unfortunately, inmates are not always provided with the medical care they need. In extreme cases, seizures, high blood pressure, heart attack, tremors or coma are possible during withdrawal and significantly heighten the risk of death. Suicide is also a possibility when an addict is in the throes of withdrawal. And while some jails offer no supportive care whatsoever, some do provide detox-assisting medications. Still, even though a doctor may prescribe these medications to an inmate, there is not always correct follow-through by the jail wardens.

Multiple Addictions Complicate Rapid Detox

Each type of drug is characterized by different detox or withdrawal symptoms. But many symptoms overlap, and if your loved one is abusing more than one type of drug, such as alcohol along with heroin, you should be aware that the withdrawal symptoms may be more intense or there may be additional complications. The absolute best place for your loved one to get the help she needs during heroin withdrawal is in a hospital or designated detox facility. Medical professionals can help by administering supportive care, such as fluids to prevent dehydration, or even mitigating some of the intense withdrawal effects by providing a taper drug. Suboxone is a common taper treatment for heroin addicts, and it can help take the edge off during withdrawal. In general, a slower detox is less likely to shock the body and is therefore less likely to lead to complications, including death.

Has Someone You Love Already Been Jailed?

If someone you love has already been jailed and is currently going through withdrawal, it is very important that you advocate on his or her behalf. Withdrawal symptoms typically begin within 12 hours of the last drug use, and they can last for six days or longer. Without supportive care, a heroin detox death may occur. So what can you do? Time is short and it is important to act quickly. If possible, post bail and immediately move your loved one into a hospital or treatment facility for a medically assisted and supervised detox. You may need to partner with a lawyer to help you advocate for appropriate services for your loved one if it is not possible for you to post bail. Even things like proper hydration for someone who has diarrhea or is vomiting can be life-saving, and yet may be overlooked by jail staff. In jail, your loved one won’t be able to access more heroin, but this doesn’t mean she is automatically safer. Find out what kind of withdrawal support is routinely offered in the jail, and team up with local professionals to help you advocate. By Cathy Habas

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