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It’s time to treat addicted inmates differently, Denver Sheriff says

Denver’s main jail will soon move dozens of prisoners into an area centered on addiction treatment. Its success will be based on lives and return visits.

DENVER — Jon Dieter admits “drugs, stolen vehicles and just messin’ around” have put him in jail more times than he can accurately remember.

“Total? My whole life? Maybe 10 times,” he said as he sits inside the downtown Denver Detention Center.

He then said this time, he hopes, will be his last.

“I’m just done. I guess there’s a point when everybody says that, and you don’t believe them, but I’m done,” he said.

If his prediction does, in fact, come true, what’s about to happen inside the same detention center just might have something to do with it.

“We’ve got to act now,” said Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins. “I’ve been here 28 years, and this is the worst I have ever seen addiction.”

Credit: KUSA
Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins

On May 9, his department will do something unique. It will open an entire pod – a pod that would hold upwards of five dozen inmates – and devote it to what’s known as Medication Assisted Treatment, or MAT.

Inmates facing addiction challenges will be offered such medications as suboxone, naltrexone, and methadone.

Jails across the country frequently have MAT programs these days, but Denver will be unique in its offering of it inside one section of the jail.

In other words, the inmates undergoing MAT will all be housed together.

The benefits, according to Sheriff Diggins, should be two-fold.

Prevention of often debilitating withdrawal symptoms and decreased overdose deaths once the inmate is released.

He said, “97% of people who come into our custody are coming back [into society]. So, what are we going to do about it?”

The MAT pod will house roughly 55-64 inmates. Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Nikki Johnson will help run it.

Johnson said the pod will pair medication with therapy. 

“The participants have to be motivated to get treatment,” she said.

Studies have suggested, Johnson said, that a two-week window post-release remains the most critical time for inmates dealing with addiction problems. One study found the risk of a fatal overdose can be as much as 129 times higher for inmates just released when compared to the general population.

“Inmates get out thinking they can use an oftentimes similar dose they were using before,” she said.

She believes successfully running MAT programs can also reduce recidivism substantially.

Sheriff Diggins said he’s sold on the idea. “I think there’s greater risk if we don’t do this,” he said.

Credit: KUSA
Jon Dieter

With fentanyl overdoses continuing to lead to a record number of deaths in Denver, he said he believes a program like this will help.

Dieter will try to prove him right. 

"My daughter is 11. It’s time. It’s time to get back to real life."


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