People with substance abuse addictions do not belong in jail when they are detoxing.

Jails are not the place to for this type of medical care. The jails are not equipped with the staffing who are trained to administer the medication and notice when something is going wrong with the process.

Last year, Victoria resident Clinton Harrington died while in the Victoria County jail while coming off of opioids.

His family tried to get him released on bond so they could get him help.

His pleas for help from the jail staff went unanswered until it was too late.

The tragic incident should have never happened.

Unfortunately it is yet another example of a broken system of tossing addicts into jail and then not giving them the care they need. The death is a part of a systemic problem.

Leaders on the local, state and federal levels must recognize this health care crisis and treat it for what it is – a crisis.

In county jails, leaders need to see addiction as a medical issue and stop seeing addicts as criminals where their behavior is not treated as an illness but as a crime.

For clarity, we recognize addicts are often involved with criminal activity. For that, they need to be treated fairly going through the judicial system.

The illness of the addiction must be treated separately from the crime.

This is similar to how mental illness has longed been viewed. Addicts, like the mentally ill, are often ignored and mishandled in the jails, while their conditions go untreated.

The Texas Jail Project, which has until recently focused on getting help for the mentally ill in jail, is expanding its focus to include helping addicts.

The nonprofit is working with the state legislature to bring awareness to the issues and to proposed changes.

But they know they have their work cut out for them. They know they have to get the attention of local leaders who can also get their message to the state and federal lawmakers.

They recently worked with the Legislature to change the black holes dealing with how jail deaths are classified to make it easier to track the cause of jail deaths. They and other groups have no way of knowing if jail deaths are related to mental illness or drug addiction because such deaths are recorded as natural causes.

The frustration is not unique to the Jail Project. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently released its self evaluation to be sent to the Sunset Commission. In the 98-page document, they too describe the difficulty in getting medical records to investigate reports of medical neglect. They cite lack of training on the jail employees part and not understanding the law as two issues they face.

The organization is pressing for the legislative committees that meet to prepare for the next session to consider legislation that would establish minimum standard for detox protocols and procedures and require county jails to establish their own protocol.

The most important recommendation it will make is to improve efforts to divert or release pretrial people with serious substance abuse problems. This would allow the addicts to get the help they need.

In the Crossroads, city and county leaders must agree to work together to help this issue. One solution could be to establish a detox unit at the county-owned Citizens Medical Center where people who are arrested are taken there for safe treatment as they come off the drugs. Once the treatment is completed they can be either taken to jail to await trial or be released.

In the same mode of thinking, the Victoria County District Attorney’s office is working on developing a drug court that would divert people arrested on drug charges from the jail to a drug court. The planning is in very early stages, but has potential to help.

“Treatment as opposed to incarceration has proven time and time again to be much more effective long-term and cost-effective ... It costs a lot more to incarcerate someone than it does to treat them,” District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson said while describing the program.

Area residents need to talk to their local leaders as well as state and federal representatives to encourage them to help establish such diversion programs that can help end the stigma of addiction.

If such projects are developed, fewer people will be in the life or death situation like Clinton Harrington was last year. We owe that much to Clinton Harrington and his family.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.

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Allen T Coffey


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