Kent County jail expands program to fight opioid abuse

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In 2016, a total of eight people died from drug overdoses within two weeks of their release from the Kent County Correctional Facility.

“The data shows us one of the most dangerous times in the life of someone who’s using substances is right after they’re released from jail or prison,” said Amanda Tarantowski, Substance Use Disorder System Manager with Network 180.

That’s because their systems are clean after detoxing in jail, so they’re more prone to overdose.

Joe Martin was among the inmates who died upon release in 2016.

A woman walking her dogs in Plaster Creek Park found the 34-year-old floor installer lying in the grass.

Martin, who died from an accidental overdose on cocaine and fentanyl, had been released from the Kent County Jail the day before his death. 

He had two children and was described as outdoorsy and kind-hearted — happy to lend his handyman expertise to anyone who needed it.

He’d been struggling with opioid addiction for two years when he died.

Decreasing the number of overdose deaths upon release from jail is one of the goals of the newly expanded medication assisted treatment program at the Kent County Correctional Facility.

“It’s going to get people in treatment. It’s going to save a lot of lives,” said Ross Buitendorp, Director of Network Services with Network 180, Kent County’s community mental health agency.

Target 8 first reported on the jail’s planned pilot program in October 2017 at the height of the opioid crisis in West Michigan.

In January 2018, the jail began providing medication therapy to inmates participating in drug court who were already on Methadone, Suboxone or Naltrexone prior to jail.

Since then, they’ve expanded so that any inmate already on medication assisted treatment (MAT) can continue once incarcerated.

In 2021, jail leaders hope to offer MAT to any inmate with a confirmed opioid use disorder, even if they’d never been prescribed it before.

“It’s been recognized as part of medical treatment,” Undersheriff Chuck DeWitt said, referring to medication assisted treatment. “Everyone should have medical treatment and, as law enforcement officials, we should not dictate what course that treatment needs to take.”

DeWitt credits Kent County Sheriff Michelle Lajoye-Young with making the program happen.

“Without her, it never would have gotten off the ground,” DeWitt said.

He said it was Dr. Jeanne Kapenga of Families Against Narcotics who in early 2017 first approached the jail to about medication assisted therapy.

“We are ever so blessed in the Kent County area for the partners we have available, for the treatment that’s available for people with substance use disorders here,” Lajoye-Young said. “This isn’t the Kent County Sheriff’s Office doing this. This is the sheriff’s office, Network 180, several (methadone) clinics. They have put in resources, financial and human resources. We’ve got some grant funds that are going towards this.”

So far, Network 180 has covered most of the cost, which it estimates will be around $57,000 in 2020.

The agency is using dollars from sales tax on packaged liquor in Kent County, a portion of which goes to Network 180 for use on “prevention, treatment or recovery efforts,” according to Tarantowski of Network 180.

The jail worked with Network 180 and the 61st District Court’s Drug Court to develop procedures to safely obtain, transport, secure and distribute the medications.

Ronald Bordeaux, an inmate who’s been addicted to opioids for two decades, is grateful he can continue his medication behind bars.

He’s experienced painful and prolonged withdrawal before.

“Well for one, you’re going to end up throwing up and having diarrhea and that could take many days. Even when that’s done, you’re still sick. You could be sick for many weeks,” Bordeaux said in an interview at the jail.

Bordeaux recalled his 2015 stay in the Kent County Jail, prior to the start of the MAT pilot program.

“The (former) sheriff called it an epidemic in here because everybody was throwing up, using the bathroom,” Bordeaux said. “I mean, it was just bad. Everybody that came in was withdrawing.”

While he thinks providing MAT to inmates can help them in recovery, he also thinks some people won’t mind going to jail as much since they won’t have to endure withdrawal.

He’s not sure that’s a good thing.

“I think it’s terrible anybody would come in here thinking there’s a party going on. It’s not a party. But I’ve heard them say it — ‘I don’t mind going to jail now because they have the methadone now.’”

Bordeaux wants to make it clear, jail is no fun, with or without medication assisted treatment.

“The inmates cannot misuse (the medications,)” Bordeaux said. “They can’t get a way to do that if they had that thought in their mind. They make us sit right there. It’s secure. It is. There’s no way to take advantage. They make sure of that.”

DeWitt pointed out that inmates on MAT must ingest their medication in front of medical staff and corrections officers who watch for signs of diversion attempts.

While there have been instances where inmates tried to keep a dose and trade it for other goods, DeWitt said it hasn’t happened often, and they’ve used the incidents to further tighten protocols.

“We’re confident our protocols are sound,” DeWitt said.

He believes providing medication assisted treatment will not only help individual inmates as they pursue recovery, but that it will also improve public safety overall for the community. 

“If we can prevent crime because they’re able to stabilize themselves and they don’t come back into the jail, they don’t further victimize others because of their habit, that’s what we are trying to accomplish,” DeWitt said.

In 2019, the jail distributed Methadone to 96 inmates and Suboxone to 98.

DeWitt has also been tracking the number of inmates who died from overdose within two weeks of their release from jail:

  • 2013: 2
  • 2014: 4
  • 2015: 4
  • 2016: 8
  • 2017: 4
  • 2018:  3

The pilot program began in early 2018.

DeWitt reports the average number of days from release to fatal overdose as 4.2.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging jails to offer medication assisted treatment.

It’s also gathering data on the practice.

Dr. Debra Pinals, MDHHS Medical Director of Behavioral Health and Forensic Programs, said 22 of the state’s 83 county jails report providing at least some medication assisted therapy to inmates.

But the state has extended the deadline for jails to respond to the point in time survey, so there may be others providing medication treatment. 

“We’re still not where we need to be,” Pinals said, referring to the number of Michigan jails providing MAT to inmates. “But we’re moving in the right direction. It’s positive and exciting.”  

>>Inside The opioid crisis in Michigan



Families Against Narcotics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on opioid overdoses

The Grand Rapids Red Project

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