Detox increase puts strain on jail staff

La Crosse County Jail sees 800 percent increase of detoxes over 5 years

 In the past five years, the number of people detoxing in the La Crosse County Jail has increased by almost 800 percent, yet the size of the jail staff has remained about the same.

The jail nurses have their hands full. On top of treating the people coming into the jail every day, the nurses also have to worry about all the inmates already in jail who need medical attention on a daily basis.

No one said it was easy, but the increasing number of drug addicts behind bars is making that job a lot more stressful.

“We are running our nurses to death,” said Capt. Steve Anderson, La Crosse County Jail.

It may be empty now, but a few weeks ago, the jail had 19 people in detox.

“For one nurse, that is a lot of people just for detox,” said Nikki, the health service administrator with the La Crosse County Jail.

“That’s all the nurse did was run around and do vitals on people,” said Anderson.

The jail has two nurses on a daily basis; one in the morning and one at night until 10 p.m.

“We do have a nurse practitioner who comes about once a week and stays for about four hours and we have an MD that comes once a week who is here for about three and a half hours,” said Nikki.

But for the most part, the medical needs of the inmates falls on the nurses’ shoulders.

“In a hospital setting, you have one nurse per four to five patients; here you have one nurse for 150-some inmates,” said Nikki.

Along with treating everyday illnesses the nurses also have to treat those coming in for detox.

“For one nurse that seems near impossible,” said Nikki.

In 2009, more than 130 people detoxed in jail. Last year, more than 1,200 people had to detox and the jail is well on its way to surpassing that number this year.

Caring for the increase in drug addicts is not only a physically demanding job but it’s also emotionally draining.

“There were days I would go home and cry because I didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” said Nikki. “I am not going to lie, I pray every single day when I walk in these doors just to make sure I am doing what I need to do to take care of these people.”

Although it’s a tough job, everyone there knows it’s an important one.

“It’s a very thankless job, so you have to be able to find the good in the job that you do,” said Nikki.

The ideal nursing staff situation in the La Crosse County Jail would be two nurses during the day, two night-siders and then someone overnight. Capt. Anderson says the people who need the most help usually come in during the overnight hours.

The jail does have a doctor on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is also a psychiatrist there about 40 hours a week.