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Deschutes County Jail set to launch medication-assisted treatment, to help inmates kick drug addictions

(Update: Adding video, comments from DCSO Captain Michael Shults)

Program tentatively set to launch in March, if two nurses can be hired

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Deschutes County plans to hire two nurses for a new Medication-Assisted Treatment Program in the county jail, which is tentatively set to begin in March. However, the jail is struggling to find nurses, a nexus of the nationwide nurse shortage.  

“Around the United States, overdose deaths and overdoses are occurring in every part of the criminal justice system," Shults said. "As we grow through this problem, law enforcement agencies have to find a way to adapt.”

As a means to do that, the county jail is making a change from traditional law enforcement, with plans to carry out the MAT program, which combines medication and counseling.

The program would use Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addictions.

“Instead of starting with therapy and behavioral health, and then drug assist, it starts with medication first," Shults said. "Individuals coming into our cycle are many times not stabilized, but we want to start them on a system where we start them with medication- start them getting stabilized, using that medication throughout their course of therapy and mental health services to get them to change behavior."

The jail is in partnership with Ideal Option, which received funding from Measure 110, designed to decriminalize personal-use amounts of hard drugs and direct marijuana revenue toward treatment programs, which has struggled to get off the ground. 

"We know drugs are being smuggled into the jail, and we have to be very diligent, whether it’s marijuana, methamphetamine -- it’s all being laced with fentanyl. And that’s the danger, because fentanyl will kill you," Shults said. "That’s why we do pat searches, strip searches, cell searches -- constantly searching to be able to weed this out."

The program is Phase 2 of the jail's plan to reduce the growing drug problem that’s affecting not only the jail, but the community at large.

Phase 1 was Operation Guardian Angel, which started about a year ago, in which a deputy is sent out patrolling and works to help those facing drug addictions. If the deputy finds someone experiencing a drug addiction crisis, they’re trained to help that individual or family work through the crisis with a medication-assisted program.

With the changes, Shults expects to see a fewer overdoses, a lower arrest rate and fewer court order violations for those on probation.

Once the nurses are hired, they will assess inmates to determine if they are fit for the program.

“What we’d like to see happen is the minute they come into the jail, after the contact with law enforcement, we ask them if they’re addicted, and if they want help, and that’s our goal. If they want help, we want to start them immediately," Shults said.

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office is also focused on release planning, to help those who want to continue with the program once they're out of the jail. It currently has a release officer to help those released from jail receive services in the community.

"Not everybody stays with us," Shults said. "The (average) length to stay in the jail is like 12 days." 

Shults said the new effort to mitigate the drug problem in the jail is a multi-agency approach involving jail staff, law enforcement officers, their medical team and behavioral health, all working together to help those individuals who seek or are willing to receive it.

 “Our goal is the same as everybody else’s," Shults said. "We’d like to reduce crime for a safe livable community."

Article Topic Follows: Crime And Courts
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Bola Gbadebo

Bola Gbadebo is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Bola here.

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