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PLN quoted regarding opioid overdoses among prisoners

The Morning Call, Sept. 17, 2017.

Jail staff trained to use narcan to prevent opioid overdoses

September 17, 2017


Just before Northampton County Jail unveiled an anti-opioid antidote program this summer, staff at its work release facility in West Easton found an unresponsive inmate with blue-tinged skin.

The inmate, who had with a history of opiate use, was making gurgling sounds, breathing slowly and had pinpoint pupils — all signs of an opiate overdose, authorities say. Staff were able to quickly get the man to a hospital in time to reverse the overdose, but the incident highlighted the need for naloxone at the county’s jail and work release facilities, authorities say.

The staffs at jails and work release facilities in both Northampton and Lehigh counties are now trained to use naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses, whether the victims may be inmates or staff who may become exposed to drugs inside the jails.

The jail staffs join a legion of police officers, paramedics, firefighters and other first-responders now armed with naloxone to revive opioid overdose victims or colleagues who may come into contact with deadly drugs.

The rush to arm those first responders and others with naloxone comes as the nation continues to be rocked by an opioid epidemic that appears to show no sings of slowing. More than half a million Americans died from drug overdoses from 2000 to 2015, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the Lehigh Valley, drug overdoses, mostly from opioids, claimed a life nearly every other day last year, according to annual coroner’s reports.

Inmate deaths due to drugs and alcohol intoxication are on the rise across the United States, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, although the report does not differentiate between the two substances, nor if the deadly drugs were illegal or prescription medications.

The most recent figures available are from 2014 with 90 inmate deaths, up from 72 in 2013, according to the bureau’s report, which does not include deaths from all jails, prisons and work release centers in the United States, only those that responded to the bureau’s survey.

Inmates at jails and correctional facilities across the United States have suffered from drug overdoses, including several at prisons in Ohio. In May, two Washington, D.C. inmates died from opioid overdoses.

It also makes sense to put naloxone in prisons, Friedmann said, calling them a more controlled environment where inmates who overdose would likely be quickly discovered and brought to treatment. Outside prison, he said, it’s not unusual for someone to overdose on drugs behind a locked bathroom door or in a room, decreasing the chance of being discovered.

According to the 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates who died from drug and alcohol intoxication served a median of only one day prior to death.

Daniel Keen, director of the Northampton County Jail, said that short prison term is in line with what local jails are experiencing with work-release inmates being the ones most at risk of opioid overdoses.

“Those are the inmates that are coming in and out of the facility and we don’t always know what we may be dealing with,” he said. “Is this someone who recently used opioids and is coming back high? Or someone trying to smuggle drugs into the facility?”

Inmates who may be taking prescription opioids don’t have access to that medication at either county jail because of the potential for abuse. But, authorities acknowledge that drugs still make their way into jails.

“I wish I could tell you that contraband never makes it into the facility, but we can’t say that,” said Mary Sabol, director of corrections at Lehigh County Jail. “We have to remain cautious and vigilant to stop smuggling.”

In 2015, a former Northampton County Jail guard was charged with smuggling cellphones, marijuana, synthetic marijuana and whiskey into the jail. Also in 2015, four Northampton County guards were suspended amid a federal investigation into contraband trafficking at the facility.

“[Contraband] is a huge challenge every day, every shift, to ensure that contraband does not come into our facility,” Keen said.

The jail is also randomly searched often by police dogs, he said.

While naloxone is available at both Lehigh and Northampton jails, it hasn’t yet been used as of September, authorities say.

Keen said the opioid crisis is a topic that jail authorities need to recognize and work to help curb, noting that the majority of the jail’s nearly 600 inmates are there for alcohol and drug offenses.

Earlier this summer, both county jails announced a program to offer jail inmates Vivitrol, a drug that is used to block cravings for opioids and alcohol. The program, paid for with a state grant, also offers inmates educational therapy, including advice on coping skills and strategies to stay clean.

Any program or medication that helps inmates avoid returning to jail or helps them battle drug addiction is worth prison officials considering and investing in, Keen said.

“I wish more people could come here and understand that 95 percent of people in here are their neighbors,” Keen said. “These are people’s brothers and sisters, parents and loved ones. Anything that will help keep them out of jail is worth it.”

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