Editorial: Helping jail inmates kick an opioid addiction helps us all

The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

When Ron Hain was elected sheriff of Kane County in 2018, the county jail had a problem. Inmates who had been released kept dying of drug overdoses — 15 that year. Shortly after taking office, he implemented a new program to provide voluntary drug treatment to inmates who were using heroin and other opioids. Last year, he says, only one released inmate died of a drug overdose.

The key here was “medication-assisted treatment,” which gives addicted inmates access to buprenorphine — an opioid used to relieve the misery of withdrawal while curbing cravings for heroin. This may sound like merely substituting one opioid habit for another. But to public health and addiction experts, it’s a way to get drug users to give up dangerous illicit substances, help them straighten out their lives and break the cycles of crime that land them back in jail.

The old way of handling inmates with substance abuse disorders is mandatory detoxification, which can be painful and dangerous. It also reduces the inmates’ tolerance for opioids — making it more likely that those who relapse after leaving jail will ingest more than they can tolerate and die of an overdose. Medication-assisted treatment, combined with counseling, avoids these perils.

It also works. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says medication-assisted treatment has been proven to “decrease illicit opiate use and other criminal activity among people with substance use disorders” and “increase patients’ ability to gain and maintain employment.”

Kane County is the latest to embrace this approach, which has the endorsement of the National Sheriffs’ Association. Nationally, says the association, at least half of the 10 million people who are jailed each year have substance abuse problems, and half of those involve opioids. It says medication-assisted treatment programs not only reduce incarceration costs but make jails safer for staff as well as inmates.


Editorials reflect the views of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. The board operates independently of the newsroom.


Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was out front on this problem. His jail has provided this sort of treatment since 2017, and he says it has lowered rearrest rates while reducing the number of assaults on jail staff and fights among inmates.

This year, a recovering opioid user sued DuPage County when Sheriff James Mendrick’s office refused to guarantee she would get her prescription methadone, also used to overcome addiction, when she began serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving. The county soon agreed to let her have it — a departure from its previous practice. Afterward, Mendrick said he planned to set up a program using buprenorphine for those behind bars.

The opioid overdose crisis has been overshadowed by the pandemic, but it has not gone away. In fact, the anxiety, economic disruption and social isolation brought on by COVID-19 made it worse. The number of fatalities soared. Meanwhile, many drug treatment centers closed down, and others curbed the number of in-person visits.

In that way, jails have something of an advantage in facilitating therapy for substance abusers. It’s good to see some counties taking useful action. Lives and futures are at stake.

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