Incarceration is Not The Cure
By Susan B. Lovell
Betsy’s the pretty girl who grew up next door in Forest Hills-East Grand Rapids. Adopted as a baby into a loving family—a caring mom and dad, a smart older brother and a grandfather who’s a prominent surgeon. Betsy was a sparkling child through grade school. But, as for many young people, middle school where the bullies crawl out of their holes, wasn’t so great. Betsy struggled.
An attentive school social worker saw behavioral problems that concerned her. She wondered about the birth parents. But with the “closed adoption,” the local agency hadn’t told Betsy’s family about the biological parents. Not good enough for the social worker so she did find out. The birth parents both had drug/alcohol addictions. Since those chronic brain diseases are inherited, Betsy’s parents would later look back on this revelation as a red flag they didn’t understand at the time.
Betsy graduated from high school in her privileged southeast suburb, and moved out when she was 19. She got good jobs, supported herself, married a nice man, and stayed close to her family. Then, when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, the entry gate that now causes 150 deaths a day swung open. She was prescribed oxycontin. With her neurobiological genetics, Betsy’s brain was hooked.
Having no experience with addictions, Betsy’s parents didn’t recognize what was happening until Betsy had a hysterectomy and doctors couldn’t control her pain. That’s when they found out she was on heroin because it’s cheaper than opioids. They immediately got her help. First Pine Rest, then two other residential treatment centers.
July 2, 2016, Betsy was arrested for doing what most addicted people do: stealing to buy drugs. Seven months later, a week after being released from the Kent County Jail, a policeman found Betsy dead in her car on Plainfield. In the middle of that freezing February night, Betsy’s parents got the knock on the door every parent dreads. Her last words before going out that night were, “Call me if you need anything, Mom.” But Betsy’s cell went silent. None of the frantic calls from her husband and parents were answered.
Did so many hearts have to get broken that night? Did this beloved 39-year old have to die from her brain’s addiction to heroin?
Maybe not. While her seven months off drugs in jail was a good thing, it wasn’t treatment. And she took full advantage of Kent County Jail’s Sober Living program, with counseling and AA meetings and a chaplain. All to the good. But because her brain had been narcotics-free those months, its tolerance for heroin had eroded so one single dose killed her. Betsy was one of five in 2016 who died within weeks after leaving jai for the same reason. Four others the year before.
Recognizing the opioid epidemic is endangering our community, Kent County has taken steps to help, rather than punish, people like Betsy while they’re in jail. Setting up Sober Living reflects their understanding that locking people up because they shoplifted to buy heroin isn’t the answer.
Now led by Sheriff Larry Stelma and Chuck Dewitt, head of Kent County’s Correctional Facility, the county is taking the next forward-thinking step with a pilot MAT program. Medically-Assisted-Treatment provides medical options that curb cravings, relieve the agony of withdrawal, but in controlled doses don’t give inmates a high. Methadone, suboxone, and vivitrol.
Using one drug to free a person from another drug can be controversial. But the bottom line is that it works. Jails in Rhode Island and Connecticut and Eaton County use MAT. Now leaving their jails is not a death risk because these inmates’ brains have been stabilized. Many in recovery from this chronic brain disease stay on MAT because for them the alternative is heroin. That illegal drug keeps them too confused, drowsy, indifferent to hygiene, at risk for AIDS from needles, and without motivation to keep their families or their jobs. On MAT, they have lives. On heroin, they don’t.
The man who sees the opioid epidemic every day is Chuck Dewitt. In October he told WOOD TV, “I have come to a point where we’re absolutely satisfied that this (MAT) is the direction we’re going. We’re changing course. We see this as an opportunity to help out.”
Dewitt was influenced by an addiction study done by Dr. Corey Waller found on this link.
And Families Against Narcotics, a resource for anyone dealing with this epidemic, promotes MAT as one of the most powerful weapons fighting this brain disease. http://www.familiesagainstnarcotics.org
In 2016 more Americans died from opioid overdoses than were killed in 20 years of the Viet Nam War. Their 64,000 names, including Betsy’s, wouldn’t begin to fit on Maya Lin’s memorial wall. But positive things are happening. Nationally, insurance companies are starting to pay for medical treatment—MAT—recognizing this as a disease, not a moral weakness.
Locally, thanks to Sheriff Stelma and Chuck Dewitt, our fellow citizens whose brain disease lands them in jail will soon have the medication that can help free them from opioids, prevent another jail-release OD, and give them a chance to return to families and jobs. To life.
Our Hope Association Board Member