Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hard Fight to Kick Heroin Behind Bars

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

LONGVIEW, Wash. -- On Dec. 22, police came to Drew Waldo's Kelso home, arrested him on a warrant, and took him to jail. Waldo, who had used heroin just before his arrest, rode the high through the night, laying on a mattress on the floor of a medical ward cell occupied by six other inmates.

By 6 a.m., he was sweating, waves of hot and then cold washing over him. An hour later, he was crawling across the concrete floor to throw up in a metal toilet in the corner.

"Your body aches. Your bones hurt," Waldo said. "You feel like your legs are growing like you're having growing pains."

He recalls thinking: "I wish I was dead."

The resurgence of heroin addiction has brought an increasing number of detoxing inmates like Waldo into the Cowlitz County Jail's medical unit. The jail books between eight and 12 inmates each week who will become severely ill as they quit heroin and sometimes alcohol the drugs that create the most complications when people stop using them.

The problem has consequences for the jail and society: Withdrawal can spark arguments and fights as jittery withdrawing prisoners stink up cells with vomit and feces and pace through he night. Detoxing inmates sometimes refuse to go to court because they feel too sick to move. Some smuggle in drugs in an effort to avoid the pain altogether. And a few offenders overdose shortly after their release because they are no longer used to high heroin doses.

The jail also regularly admits inmates who are high on methamphetamine, corrections officials said. But in most cases those offenders merely sleep for several days. Heroin and alcohol detoxers are the most tricky, according to jail staff. Their muscles cramp. They sweat. They vomit. They have diarrhea over several days.

"It's just nasty," Marin Fox Hight, the director of the county's Department of Corrections, said of watching an inmate come off heroin.

Withdrawal is the creeping, sinking sensation a heroin addict fights like mad to keep at bay. Break the car window to get the wallet to get the money to score the heroin to stop the withdrawal. Slip the DVDs under your coat and walk out of the store to trade them for heroin to stop the withdrawal. And on it goes.

Invariably they get caught, and they end up facing the thing they hoped at all costs to avoid - this time in a loud, concrete cell with a single toilet, no privacy and no hope of stopping it.

"Jail's the only place I've ever been able to stop using. You know you can't get it." said Kevin Kennedy, 27, of Longview, who detoxed in the lockup last month after being arrested on suspicion of prowling cars and using stolen credit cards to buy thousands of dollars in electronics.

The jail's medical unit can provide detoxing inmates with array of prescription drugs Methcarbamol (a muscle relaxant), Bentyl (for relieving spasms in the digestive system), and Promethazine (to control itching and relieve nausea.) But really, Fox Hight said, there's little the jail's small medical staff can do. The detox simply needs to run its course.

Kennedy, who spent about a week coming off heroin following his arrest, said he avoided the jail's medical unit, which is staffed by a nurse and provides liquids and mild medications to help with muscle cramping and nausea.

"It really doesn't do anything for you," he said.

Instead, Kennedy chose to detox among the jail's general population, where sympathetic inmates who have been through the same thing might help. For the first three days, he said, he couldn't eat, so he gave away his meals. In exchange, inmates provided candy - which detoxers crave to replenish blood sugar. They also shared their coffee, which "is a big thing if you're coming off heroin," he said.

When he was released more than two weeks later, Kennedy said, "I still wanted to use. I wanted to use more than anything in the world."

Kennedy is expected to appear in court on the prowling and theft charges later this month.

"A lot of them are pretty needy," said Maureen Clement, 52, of Kelso, who has worked as a corrections officer at the jail for two decades. "It's sad. They really suffer a lot. The crazy thing is they keep coming back on the same thing."

Some inmates, she said, die of overdoses shortly after they're released, probably because their bodies are no longer accustomed to the high doses of heroin they were taking before incarceration. Others, Clement said, smuggle drugs in to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Corrections officers, she said, sometimes find drugs stuffed into inmates' orifices.

Asked how much heroin and other drugs are being smuggled into the jail, she said, "We have no idea. My personal opinion is there's more than we can imagine."

Detoxing inmates that have been allowed into the jail's general population are sometimes moved into the medical unit because other inmates complain. Clement recalled a woman coming off heroin who lost control of her bowels in the shower. The other inmates "got real angry and made sure that we got her out of there," Clement said.

Offenders in the general population "don't want someone in there that's real sick because it smells and they're locked in there with them," she said.

Waldo, who detoxed in the jail last month, said cell mates become angry quickly as sleepless, detoxing inmates pace through the night and repeatedly get sick.

"People get pissed off. Arguments it leads up to fights. You're still throwing up and everybody's getting mad at you," said Waldo, who said he's been clean for nearly two months after using heroin for seven years.

Alcohol detox is almost as hard as for heroin, jail staff said. Take the example of Colby Harris, who was arrested after witnesses reported seeing him naked, covered with blood and feces and stealing neighbors' mail, as well as a checkbook and car stereo faceplate in September of 2008.

"I was just blacked out on drugs and alcohol," Harris said. "I don't remember walking around naked with crap all over me, but I can't deny it either."

He said he was so drunk police had him checked out at St. John Medical Center before he was booked into the jail. In the medical ward, he said, his blood pressure spiked. He thought he'd have a heart attack.

"It was horrible. Absolutely horrible," said Harris, who is 39 and drank and used meth until just more than a year ago. "Nightmares. Sweats. It's indescribable. I can't tell you how bad it is. ... You can't stay still and you can't stay warm. They give you a blanket and the mattresses in there are just like a sheet. They're all worn and flattened down."

Harris, who used to work on fish and crab boats in Alaska and now studies journalism at Lower Columbia College, said time lost all meaning as he was "stuck in a concrete box with no clock."

Corrections officers said they check on detoxing inmates about once each hour, depending on how sick they are. But Harris said he wondered if anyone would be there to help him if his body failed.

"Sheer loneliness," he said. "You go through a lot of mental anguish. It's a part of the process. It can last three or nine days. Horrible nightmares. Depression. Vomiting. Nausea. Cold sweats. Heart palpitations. Fear. And then on top of that being confined."

When Harris got out he enrolled in the county's Drug Court program. He said he relapsed on New Year's Eve 2008, then, still drunk, turned himself in five days later. He had to detox in the jail all over again.

"By the third day I was on my knees praying: This is enough for me, God,'" he said.

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