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York County Prison a starting place for rehab

Katherine Ranzenberger
505-5439/@YDKatherine
  • According to the AP, there have been about 6 deaths nationwide involving jail heroin withdrawal in the last two years.
  • York County Prison does multiple health screenings for addicts when they're admitted.
  • There have been 22 confirmed heroin-related overdoses in York County in 2016 so far.

About 40 miles northeast of York County, on Easter Sunday 2015, 18-year-old Victoria “Tori” Herr died after experiencing severe heroin withdrawal symptoms, causing diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration.

“I’m not a professional, but, as a mother — Day 1 — I would have taken her to the hospital if I would have seen her vomiting or not keeping things down,” Stephanie Moyer, Herr's mother, told The Associated Press.

The teen had been admitted to Lebanon County Correctional Facility, where she told intake officers she had been using 10 bags of heroin every day. Herr's mother, a graphic artist who raised her son and daughter on a quiet lane amid bucolic fields of corn and hay in Lebanon County, thought the prison would be a safe place for her struggling daughter to stay before transitioning into a rehabilitation facility.

Herr's case is one of at least a half-dozen deaths nationwide involving jail heroin withdrawal during the past two years, according to The Associated Press. Advocates, such as lawyers and heroin task forces, fear the number will grow, given the nation’s heroin crisis.

These advocates find the deaths particularly troubling because opioid withdrawal, while miserable, is rarely life-threatening if medication, monitoring and, in severe cases, intravenous fluids are available.

Officials at York County Prison has procedures in place to identify potential medical problems.

Procedures: If an addict enters York County Prison, there are screening, evaluation and, in some cases, detox procedures and rehabilitation counseling in place to protect that person while in county custody, according to Clair Doll, deputy warden in charge of treatment at the prison. Doll said these procedures are meant to help start the rehabilitation process.

Advocates fear more heroin withdrawal deaths in jails

The goal is not only to take care of people's medical needs but to successfully reintegrate those convicted of crimes back into the community, he said in an email.

"Ultimately, individuals who address their substance-abuse problems are less likely to commit crimes — an outcome that improves community safety and reduces taxpayer cost associated with the criminal justice system," Doll wrote.

All people committed to York County Prison are screened by medical corrections officers, Doll said. The goal is to identify physical and psychiatric concerns. These screenings also identify drug abuse and dependence.

"If an individual is believed to have a substance-abuse problem, a more in-depth medical screening is performed by our contracted medical service provider," Doll said. If that provider determines a person is addicted, Doll said, a "detoxification procedure,"  is commenced. Such a procedure is meant to remove toxins from the bloodstream.

Treatment staff then sees the person for further evaluation. Development of a treatment plan and risk and needs assessments follow to determine what course of treatment would be best for the person.

"In the case of substance abuse, the prison uses a tool developed by Texas Christian University to determine the appropriate drug and alcohol treatment," Doll said. "A person with substance abuse concerns will then be recommended to complete one of the substance abuse programs offered in the prison or, if participating in the Work Release Program, may participate in outpatient substance abuse programming in the community."

Release: However, Doll said, it's hard to truly help these people when they're only in the prison for relatively short periods of time.

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"Recognizing the need for continued service outside of the prison walls, we have partnered with York/Adams Drug and Alcohol Commission to identify inmates who require substance-abuse treatment upon release and to start Medical Assistance to cover the cost of treatment upon release."

Doll said the prison has had this program for decades, reviewing the procedures and improving them based on best practices in the industry.

"There has been an increase in the number of individuals engaged in such programming in recent years, to include an increase in the number of individuals incarcerated that are using heroin," he said.

According to York County Coroner Pam Gay, there have been 22 confirmed heroin overdoses in York County so far in 2016. There are 22 suspected heroin overdoses awaiting official confirmation, Gay added. The number of other drug-related overdoses was also 22, making the total number of drug-related overdoses 44 so far in 2016.

Last year, there were 65 confirmed heroin overdoses in York County, Gay said.

Doll said there have been no fatalities from overdoses or substance abuse withdrawal at the prison during his time there, despite the high-risk population that comes through the doors. Gay said she had not known of any either.

— Reach Katherine Ranzenberger at kranzenberger@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDKatherine

The Associated Press contributed to this story.