Wisconsin News

More inmates going through heroin withdrawal behind bars

LA CROSSE, Wis. - The growing heroin problem in the La Crosse area is leading to more and more addicts winding up in jail, and going through withdrawal.

When La Crosse County Jail Sgt. Steve Anderson started his job 30 years ago, heroin addiction was basically unheard of.

Now he sees it every day.

"Well, at first, we thought it was kind of a fluke because heroin was so rare. But then the word we got was that it's readily available and it's cheap," said Anderson. "Now it seems like we've always got somebody in here coming down off from heroin -- at least one person."

When those inmates go through withdrawal, the jail is responsible for their safety. That comes with a price tag for the county.

"They're labor-intensive for the jailers, they're labor-intensive for the nurses. The nurses need to evaluate them. They take a lot of our resources while they're here," said Anderson. "The jailers have to check on them at least every 30 minutes, sometimes every 15 minutes. ... They may require extra medication."

Anderson has personally taken a few inmates to the hospital.

"[It's] terribly painful, terribly miserable. You would think after going through that, that they would never ever touch it again. But, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work that way," said Anderson.


That's why Chemical Health and Justice Sanctions Manager Jane Klekamp said it's important to get those inmates connected to treatment as soon as possible.

"If we can get in touch with somebody when they're at that critical time, and they're more open to treatment, and we can get them in pretty quickly, then we're much more successful than if they say, 'Well, I don't really know if I'm really ready to go to treatment,' or we can't get them into treatment right away, so we have to wait for a week or two. Their motivation is decreased," said Klekamp.

But Anderson said the painful withdrawal symptoms aren't enough of a wake-up call for many inmates he sees returning to jail, just to go through withdrawal all over again.

"An awful lot of them we know on a first-name basis because they're coming through so often," said Anderson. "But how to break that cycle, we don't know."

La Crosse County Jail has a nurse on staff from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. who can give inmates medication to help with their symptoms. But if they decide an inmate needs methadone -- a medication that helps wean an addict off of heroin -- the jail has to expend resources to bring in someone from a methadone clinic to dispense it.

Anderson said it's not just inmates booked on drug charges who are going through withdrawal behind bars. Many of them are in for burglary or other crimes related to getting money to feed their addictions.

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