ELLSWORTH — For some, the time spent incarcerated at the Hancock County Jail can be a reprieve from addiction, even a life-saver. It’s a chance to get clean, according to social workers, and to take advantage of local and state programs aimed at helping addicts avoid using.
For others, incarceration can pose a dangerous health risk — one that jail staff has become accustomed to handling.
According to Jail Administrator Tim Richardson, about twice a week, inmates incarcerated at the county jail are sent to the hospital because of complications related to alcohol or opiate withdrawal.
“We err on the side of caution,” Frank Shepard, the assistant jail administrator, said of his staff’s addiction-response procedures.
The experience of withdrawal for those addicted to alcohol or opiates such as heroin, suboxone or pills can be intensely painful and, in the wrong circumstances, deadly. Jail staffers have a procedure for how to handle inmates going through the biological process.
Typically, according to the United States National Library of Medicine’s website, opiate addiction withdrawal can include muscle aches, insomnia, sweating, shaking and high anxiety. In late stages, these symptoms can progress to diarrhea, vomiting and cramping. In extreme cases, opiate withdrawal can lead to death, mostly through dehydration.
In some parts of the United States, inmates have died because corrections officers failed to treat opiate addicts’ symptoms. Multiple media reports from 2017 referenced cases where inmates died from dehydration while in jail.
A person’s body experiences the opposite effects of the drug in question, according to governmental and commercial organizations’ websites. Opiates are drugs that numb pain — both physically and emotionally. As a result, opiate withdrawal means that a user is suddenly hypersensitive to any and all pain.
Alcohol withdrawal, meanwhile, can lead to headaches, vomiting and rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, it can include extreme confusion, tremors and seizures, which can be deadly.
“It’s a horrible thing to watch them go through it,” Richardson said of withdrawal. “We want to see them get better.”
Workers in the corrections system in Maine note that a large number of people incarcerated struggle with mental health issues or addiction, if not both. As a result, instead of sending numerous inmates to local hospitals, jails have put in place systems to treat withdrawal on site.
Richardson said his jail’s procedure for withdrawals has been in place for at least five or six years.
Hancock County Jail has a nurse practitioner, based in Waldo County, who comes in once a week but is on call 24 hours each day to handle cases. She took over in July, after the previous medical provider stepped down.
Offenders booked into the Hancock County Jail are subjected to a series of screenings, Shepard said, aimed at determining their physical and mental well-being. If they don’t make bail out at that point, and they have an addiction, they’re given a detox protocol by the nurse practitioner.
For residents going through opiate withdrawal, jail staff may provide Clonidine, which is a pharmaceutical drug that can treat high blood pressure, migraines and diarrhea. Unlike opiate-based addiction treatments such as methadone or suboxone, Clonidine isn’t a “controlled substance” — a drug regulated by the government — and it doesn’t help ease addiction.
“It helps them get through their withdrawal symptoms,” Shepard said.
Pregnant women, however, are given subutex, which is a narcotic that can be used to help wean addicted individuals off heroin or pills.
Inmates going through alcohol withdrawal are given Librium, a sedative.
Shepard emphasized that his staff can’t just decide to hand out these medications. It has to be prescribed by the nurse practitioner.
“Our staff is very passionate about this opiate addiction problem,” Richardson said, “and we’ll do anything and everything possible to deal with it.”
That includes having jail staff travel to an inmate’s home or to a pharmacy for medication, he said, which happens regularly.
At any point while incarcerated, individuals can participate in programs aimed at alleviating their addiction. There’s counseling provided by Open Door Recovery Center, a rehabilitation program in Ellsworth, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. There’s Bible study and grief counseling, as well as career programs to help prepare inmates for economic stability when they get out of jail.
But ultimately, after all the services are administered, social workers contend that a major challenge comes when addicts are released from jail. That’s when they’ll face challenges related to poverty or bridges burned within their social circles. For Richardson, the services his staff provide in the jail are meant to help ensure that people can face those challenges when they get out — and stay out.