Kent Co. jail ‘changing course’ to address opioid crisis

A Killer Among Us

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If your only contact with the Kent County jail is a passing glance from the highway, you probably don’t think much about what goes on inside.

“I never really gave it much thought,” said Wendy Bubin, a Rockford mom whose son died of a heroin overdose last year. “Until it affected me.”

Bubin never imagined it would.

Even after the first hint of trouble when her son, Bobby Bubin, was caught with marijuana at Rockford High School his sophomore year, she never would have believed that her firstborn would spend some of his final days in jail, serving time for heroin possession.

Growing up in an upper-class, lakefront community outside Rockford, Bobby Bubin was a good athlete and student, a free spirit who loved to play pranks on the little sister he adored.

“He had a kind heart,” Wendy Bubin said through tears. “He loved his sister and his brother. He loved his family. He loved sports. Somehow that just got lost.”

Bobby Bubin was 27 years old when he walked out of the Kent County jail on Dec. 14, 2016. Ten days later, on Christmas Eve, heroin killed him.

“He’d been sober for five months,” Wendy Bubin said. “When they come out (of jail), their tolerance is so low, and if he tried to do what he was used to, it was enough to kill him.”


It’s a phenomenon Kent County jail authorities are examining closely, looking for ways they can help people safely transition back into society.

“It’s a learning process,” Chuck Dewitt, who oversees the Kent County Correctional Facility, said. “We are trying to wrap our heads around this epidemic and see how it is that the jail fits into the treatment side of things.”

“The fear is when anyone cleanses their body, if you will, of the drugs, if they go back to their original dose, then there’s always going to be that possibility that what they thought they could handle has now changed and they can no longer take that dose,” he continued. “Now there’s that increased risk of death.”

The jail is already using medications short-term to ease sickness from withdrawal.

In 2016, the jail flagged 3,208 inmate bookings as potentially involving withdrawal from drugs or alcohol. That’s 13.2 percent of the total booking for the year.

The same year, Bobby Bubin was one of five inmates who died from an opioid overdose within two weeks of their release.

In 2015, there were four such deaths, including that of Kelly Jonker, the mother to a 2-year-old boy.

“I see my son’s mother in my son every day,” said Sean Ristema, who gained custody of his son after Jonker’s death.

Jonker, 35, was released from the Kent County jail July 24, 2015, after serving two months on a shoplifting arrest.

“They had played together all day that day she was released from jail,” Ritsema recalled of his son’s last interaction with his mother.

Hours later, home alone with her son, Jonker died of a methadone overdose.

“She basically fell asleep in a chair and never woke up,” Ritsema said.

Thankfully, her son was found safe, asleep in a bedroom.

>>Inside The opioid crisis in West Michigan


“It’s horrible. I mean it is horrible,” Chuck DeWitt said of overdose deaths shortly after release. “If there’s something we can potentially do to help with (the overdose epidemic), we’re willing to change our practices to meet that need.”

To that end, the Kent County jail is preparing to launch a pilot program as soon as November to test the effectiveness of providing medication-assisted treatment to inmates struggling with opioid addiction. The jail will provide medications like methadone and Suboxone to inmates who come into the facility through Kent County’s Drug Court.

“The reason we’re starting with a pilot program is this is completely new,” explained DeWitt. “So there’s safety procedures, protocols that need to be established so we’re going to do it with a smaller subset to then evaluate the effectiveness of the program.”

“We searched the jails in Michigan, and we identified one facility (in Eaton County) that currently does this,” he noted.

Medication-assisted therapy is becoming standard medical practice for the treatment of opioid addiction. The use of meds like methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) have been shown to significantly improve chances for long-term sobriety by reducing cravings and withdrawals while people do the hard work that recovery requires: learning to live life drug-free.

“I have come to a point where we’re absolutely satisfied that that is the direction we’re going,” said DeWitt. “We’re changing course. We see this as an opportunity to help out.”

DeWitt pointed to one report from the state that he said “weighed heavily” in the decision.

>>PDF: Medication Assisted Treatment Guidelines for Opioid Use Disorders

DeWitt is uncertain how long the pilot program will continue, though it could be as long as a year, after which officials evaluate the program and consider making it available to more inmates.

DeWitt says payment for the medications will be coordinated by the 61st District Court, which oversee the drug court, and Network 180, Kent County’s community mental health agency. Any additional counseling will be provided by the drug court staff already assigned to the inmates.

Sean Ritsema thinks medication-assisted treatment might have helped Kelly Jonker survive her transition back into the real world.

“Mostly because of the fact that her system was so clear, and she was bound to do methadone when she got out of jail. She was bound to overdose,” Ritsema said.


Wendy Bubin is happy that the jail is launching the pilot program, though she doesn’t know if anything could have saved her son.

After nearly a decade of countless, desperate attempts at intervention, Bubin knew long-term recovery could only happen if Bobby himself was ready to do the hard work to get there.

“That’s I think one of the hardest parts is letting it go and realizing I can’t control it anymore,” Bubin said. “He’s in control. It’s his choice. Even though he doesn’t know right now good from bad. He just wanted that next high or whatever. He just couldn’t get beyond it.”

Still, she’s forever haunted by the what ifs.”

“Maybe if we had done things differently, our family would be different,” Bubin said through tears. “I know that’s not true, but it’s still down there. We did the best we could. I know that.”

Bubin will share more of Bobby’s story with parents and students at Rockford High School Oct. 17 as part of the district’s Developing Healthy Kids series.



Families Against Narcotics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on opioid overdoses

The Grand Rapids Red Project

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