Addictive diseases are common in the USA, and their prevalence among jail inmates is higher than in the general population. Many patients have physiologic dependence on alcohol, prescription sedatives, opioids, or heroin. With the abrupt cessation of use, a withdrawal syndrome with physiological symptoms can constitute a medical crisis, fatal in some cases. Opiate withdrawal, usually not fatal, always causes terrible discomfort and exacerbates concurrent medical problems.
Medical Care for Addicts is Severely Lacking in Our Prisons
Many correctional facilities prohibit inmate use of opiate medications or continued methadone maintenance even when prescribed prior to incarceration. When methadone maintenance treatment ends abruptly, acute opiate withdrawal ensues. Some inmates experience withdrawal symptoms that inadequately trained staff overlook, discount, or intentional disregard, sometimes in the belief that suffering of withdrawal somehow will deter addicts from further drug abuse.
The federal constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment requires proper medical care for the incarcerated. Withdrawal syndromes are medical conditions that demand evaluation and treatment. Correctional facilities that deny treatment may be liable for unnecessary harm to inmates in withdrawal. Nevertheless, too many jails and prisons still lack basic health care services.
Opioid Withdrawal Can Be Fatal Without Medical Care
Jails across the country have been faced with incidents where they’ve lost inmates due to opioid withdrawal symptoms. At least four cases stand out and have raised questions about state prison detox protocols. Each case is unique but follows the same pattern. An addict is arrested on drug charges but is refused medical attention. Rather than receiving a hospital bed, they receive a prison cell where they suffer miserably.
Imminent withdrawal is the sinking feeling heroin addicts struggle to keep at bay. This is what leads them to break into cars and slipping merchandise under their coats. Then, when they get busted, they face what they tried again and again, by all means, to avoid – withdrawal – but this time in a jail cell with an exposed toilet, no privacy, and no way to stop it. Ironically, a few inmates say jail is the only place they can stop it, where they know they can’t get it.
Understanding the Expectations of Our Prisons
It’s important to know that not all jails are the same. Some do have better detox protocols than others, so it’s possible to receive medical attention and adequate care for withdrawal symptoms in some prisons. However, this is not the norm.
The American Society of Addictive Medicine recommends that:
- Criminal justice authorities provide appropriate medical screening so medical needs for alcohol and other drug withdrawal do not go unaddressed during incarceration.
- Drug addicts in jails or prisons receive the medical care necessary to manage withdrawal syndromes as for any other acute illnesses or injuries.
- Individuals arrested or detained in correctional facilities be screened by trained personnel for the presence or risk of addiction and withdrawal. When medically necessary, health care professionals should render appropriate detoxification services.
- Jails and prisons revise any policies and procedures that interfere with necessary and appropriate withdrawal management services.
- Whenever possible, jails and prisons seek accreditation by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
If a loved one has been arrested on drug-related charges and you are concerned for their welfare, call the facility to determine their detox protocol. It’s important that your loved one is given proper medical attention before seeing the judge. Once your loved one serves their time, please consider a comprehensive addiction treatment program like The River Source.