For years, inmates booked at the Deschutes County Jail who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have been left to detox in their cells, only to be released back to the neighborhoods, friends and dealers that got them there in the first place. And the cycle continues.
Inmates could take advantage of voluntary counseling. But for most, the goal is finding the next hit.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson and his staff are implementing a plan to treat the inmate’s addiction first. So, for the first time ever, they leave with a clear mind and a network of services to keep them from ever coming back.
It’s paid for with funds from Oregon Measure 110, aimed at channeling hundreds of millions of dollars of marijuana tax revenues into drug treatment and harm reduction programs.
Khristine Fodor is a 35-year old mother of two. She’s a methamphetamine and fentanyl addict.
She is now also a felon.
“I stole a car and I got my first felony from it. And put on probation,” said Khristine.
She was released from jail 72 days after losing her kids, her job and her home. What she still has is a drug dealer and friends who are still using. The odds say Khristine will die of an overdose within a week or be right back in jail in a few days.
The Deschutes County Jail is also a second home for Shawnda Jennings. She too is a recovering addict, spending decades chasing her next hit of meth or heroin.
“I’ve been where they’re sitting. I know everything that they’re feeling. The loneliness, them being scared,” said Shawnda.
Today, she spends her time guiding inmates like Khristine out of the nightmare of addiction as a peer outreach specialist for Ideal Option drug treatment center in Bend.
She is the partner Sheriff Nelson was looking for to turn previous inmate outreach on its head.
For decades, the drug assistance offered in places like this consisted of therapy and mental health counseling if you could find it. And then, if you didn’t die of an overdose first, medication to curb the need for your drug of choice. Most inmates just don’t have that kind of time. They need help kicking their addiction immediately.
Enter Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), where killing their cravings is the first order of business, not the last.
“Once we can get them on an effective medication for them to be stabilized, start thinking about what they want to do, so that they’re not making decisions based on their cravings, their sickness, and all of those things that are not letting their brains process what a meaningful life can be, we’re gonna start that process,” said Deschutes County Sheriff’s Captain Michael Shults.
And that process has to start before they walk out the door.
“You have that small window. I mean, either they’re going to get help … they’re gonna go to their dope guy or they’re gonna get help. So, being able to help that person within the first 24 hours is huge,” said Shawnda.
For addicts like Khristine, the new approach means new hope.
“If I didn’t have that, the chance of relapse would probably be a lot higher because my mentality on my body can’t fight that addiction on its own right now,” said Khristine.
She found that out a few months ago when she overdosed on fentanyl just days after serving a previous jail sentence. A friend was carrying narcan. She would survive this time.
“Probably 90% of the individuals that come into our jail have an addiction issue, a mental health issue or a medical issue or a combination of all of the above,” said Nelson.
The MAT program is where sheriff nelson feels his Measure 110 money is best spent.
“To help them overcome their addiction challenge which is most likely leading them to a life of crime or driving the wedge between them and their family members and support structure,” said Nelson. “So, if they have access to medication assisted treatment and that helps them overcome their addiction, so that they’re not in the criminal justice system anymore, that’s a win.”
And not just a win for them. Every inmate at the jail eventually gets released and then becomes your neighbor, the clerk at your favorite store, filling your car with gas, the parent of a student in your child’s class. No one is isolated from this problem.
However, isolation from their past is key to the success of these addicts. And that includes partnering with those who can provide job assistance and even temporary housing. Turning points and other groups are equal partners in this effort.
“The data shows that they are arrested at a significantly lower rate, they maintain their court appearances, they use the ER medical services less and they show up for court and they don’t come back,” said Shults.
The National Institutes of Health confirms that in states from Washington to Rhode Island, up to 70% of the inmates on the MAT program broke their addictions and never returned to jail.
Khristine is starting over: Looking for acceptance, hoping others can understand the struggle, forgive the deeds and open their minds.
“I’m engaging in the community. I’m doing what I need to do. I’m seeing a psychologist. I’m taking steps toward my sobriety and my mental health and again, that’s all stuff that I got through jail,” said Khristine. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. And, if you believe in second chances, we are living proof of second chances.”
Every single inmate fighting addiction is now offered a shot at the MAT program and at a normal life before they leave.
“Does it mean they’re gonna take it when they walk out those doors? But at least we can be there to offer it to them,” said Shawnda.
Khristine took that offer and is now working on a job, permanent housing and proving she can be a good mother to her 4-month old and 2-year-old children.
MAT is funded by the taxes raised through cannabis sales, and while Sheriff Nelson disagrees with much of what Measure 110 allows, the fact that it pays for the mat program is an important consolation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.