Addressing the opioid crisis

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Wednesday, April 11th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. Grim statistics are out on deaths from drug overdose.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent available data show more than 67,000 Americans died of a drug overdose between August 2016 and August of last year.

REICHARD: So that indicates the opioid epidemic is still getting worse. Law enforcement officials are scrambling to find something—anything—that works. The recidivism rate for drug offenders is at 77%, according to the Bureau of Justice.

COVINGTON: That’s why one County Sheriff in Virginia is getting a lot of attention from those tasked with resolving some of this. Sheriff Karl Leonard has some unorthodox ways of changing the relapse numbers.

REICHARD: And please be advised this story has some adult themes. Parents with small children may want to hit pause to busy them elsewhere.

WORLD Radio’s J.C. Derrick has the story.

J.C. DERRICK, MANAGING EDITOR: Patsy Garnett’s first taste of alcohol came when her alcoholic father mixed some into her sippy cup. She was 3 years old.

Garnett went on to develop both drug and alcohol problems as a young adult, but she didn’t have an opioid problem until a serious car crash in 2010.Garnett’s legally prescribed pain pills for recovery turned into a full-blown opioid addiction.

GARNETT: I didn’t have anywhere to go and I started drinking real heavy, taking pain pills, and doing anything I could—stealing, selling my food stamps—anything I could to get money for pain pills.

She ended up on heroin…and in the Chesterfield County Jail.

Sheriff Karl Leonard had seen one too many deaths when Garnett arrived in fall 2016.

LEONARD: And it just told me this is ridiculous. This is insanity that we’re doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

That “same thing” was arresting addicts, cleaning them up, and releasing them with no tools to prevent a relapse. When they would go out and use the old amount of heroin, their bodies could no longer handle it, leading to an overdose.

LEONARD: Not only was I not helping them break the addiction, I was actually settin’ ‘em up for failure and death.

To that point, the Chesterfield County Jail only housed men long term. Women were processed and sent elsewhere.

Leonard had started a men’s program a few months earlier, but a new death prompted him to help the women, too. He found Patsy Garnett on the jail floor in active withdrawal.

LEONARD: And I asked her, I said, “What would it take for you to stop being a heroin addict?” And her answer was simple. “I just need somebody to help me.”

Leonard and his staff started trying everything they could think of. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.

One of the first discoveries: Addicts had to be ready for help.

LEONARD: You have to want to recover – and that doesn’t get you in the program. We have leaders in both the men and the women. They have to interview you.

Leonard made recovering addicts like Garnett the gatekeepers in and out of the program. They’re called mentors. If they say someone is causing trouble and needs to go, Leonard transfers them immediately—no questions asked.

The process seems to work, but he may be taking a legal risk.

AUDIO: That’s because no inmate, by law, can have any domain over any other inmate.

There’s more. You’re not supposed to house siblings together, but Leonard does when he thinks it will help.

You’re not supposed to allow computer use, but Leonard does so inmates can research and write assigned papers.

You’re also not supposed to let people stay in the jail without charges, but Leonard does when addicts fear they might relapse.  

LEONARD: This is a very unconventional epidemic—we need an unconventional approach. So our approach literally breaks a lot of Department of Corrections rules. But if I follow the rules, people die.

So far the Department of Corrections has not clamped down on the program now known as HARP, an acronym for Heroin Addiction Recovery Program. It has three pillars: Spiritual, mental health, and peer-to-peer help.

HARP participants have some perks—like a 70-inch TV and a whiteboard with markers, but they also put in 12-hour days. Mornings start with a two-hour, self-led discussion, followed by peer-to-peer counseling with recovering addicts like Patsy Garnett.

Leonard brings in facilitators to teach behavioral and critical thinking classes—plus special speakers. Some of them are Christians, like Leonard.

AUDIO: Hi…Hi!… Good morning ladies! [group response] Good morning! How many newbies we got today?

Support after leaving jail is key to an addict’s chances of recovery. HARP alumni have created a Facebook group to build community, and even after someone is released, they can still come back to finish the program.

Leonard says there’s really no reason a jail needs to be involved at all.  

LEONARD: I don’t want my program. I wish I never had it. This program needs to be in the community—before somebody gets arrested, before they get too deep in problems.

Organizers acknowledge that the true measure of the program’s success won’t be known for another couple of years, but so far so good.

Among more than 500 participants over the last two years, 63 have met the stringent 6-month requirements to graduate. Of those, officials only know of 11 relapses.

Among those who stay in the program less than six months, the majority have avoided re-arrest so far.

Most of those are taking the Patsy Garnett path.

GARNETT: Any day clean is a celebration for me…because my goal is to better today than I was yesterday.

Today marks one year since Garnett left the Chesterfield County Jail. She’s since landed a job, regained custody of her children after seven years, and got engaged to one of Sheriff Leonard’s deputies.

GARNETT: I’m very, very happy that the sheriff had the compassion for me—because he didn’t just do it for me. It was for me, and my children, and my mom, and he did it for all of these women, because, like, they need someone that can show them there is hope.

AUDIO: “through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…”

For WORLD Radio, I’m J.C. Derrick reporting from Chesterfield, Virginia.

(Photo/Chesterfield County, VA Sheriffs Office)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

One comment on “Addressing the opioid crisis

  1. Gary Witthoefft says:

    great article; I live in the Chesterfield County area and would like to see if I there is a need for volunteers to assist this program in dealing with the local opioid crisis.
    Do you have any contact information associated with this program?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.