RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – As deaths from opioid overdoses continue to rise in Central Virginia and across the country, Richmond Jail is arming inmates with training it hopes will will help keep them alive once they are freed.
Opioid-related deaths rose in 2020, and 8News reported last year that the crisis continued into 2021 in the central Virginia area.
Since 2018, inmates at Richmond Jail have been trained in the use of naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can block opiates and reverse the effects of an overdose. According to Sheriff Antionette Irving, 140 of them have been trained in the use of the drug, commonly sold as Narcan, since the program began.
“When they’re at our facility, they have the opportunity to get rid of their addiction,” she said. “That doesn’t mean the addiction is going away. The addiction is still there. This is the reality and we also have to do something about it.
Recently, the prison added training in the use of fentanyl testing in response to the growing role that synthetic opioids have played in overdose deaths. Twenty-eight inmates received this training.
“Sometimes individuals don’t even know that a substance contains fentanyl, which creates a very dangerous and life-threatening situation because fentanyl is highly addictive and deadly,” Sheriff Irving said.
What is Harm Reduction?
Naloxone and fentanyl testing are just examples of harm reduction policies — practices with “a goal of reducing mortality and complications from addictions” without insisting on strict abstinence.
Dr. F. Gerard Moeller is a psychiatrist at VCU who studies the neurobiology of opioid addiction. He told 8News that harm reduction “has been shown to be effective in saving lives from overdose and reducing the spread of comorbid conditions such as HIV and hepatitis C.”
He added that fentanyl was “a major factor in the recent increase in opioid overdose deaths” and was often found as a contaminant in other illicit drugs.
Dziko Singleton is coordinator of the Richmond Health Brigade’s harm reduction program, and she said the prison meets a very real need in the community.
“We have a lot of people coming to our sites just for fentanyl test strips or Narcan,” she said.
In fact, the health brigade was providing this same training to prison inmates, before the COVID-19 pandemic ended their involvement.
“It’s important to make sure people have and can use Narcan,” said Colin King, the program’s other coordinator. “It’s the same thing we’ve been pushing for for a while.”
What it takes to recover
Singleton and King warned that it takes more than harm reduction to break the cycle of addiction.
Singleton was incarcerated herself and is now recovering. She said putting people in jail for possessing small amounts of narcotics can prevent them from getting the help they need.
“Nobody should be in jail for a spoonful of heroin,” she said.
And once people are released from prison, they may struggle to find food, jobs and housing. Although harm reduction can prevent some opioid-related deaths, King said the real question should be “What other resources are there to ensure people can maintain abstinence or recovery?”
While Sheriff Irving said she hoped fentanyl testing would enable Richmond residents to “realize the danger and make an informed decision about lethality and not to use,” King and Singleton warned that testing had serious limitations.
“They’re testing very specific types of Fentanyl and analogs,” King said. “These are great tools, but they’re not the ultimate solution.”