Opinion: Prison are overlooked in opioid crisis

Andy Potter

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around 66 percent of the 63,600 drug overdose deaths in 2016 involved an opioid.

In prisons and jails, dependency on opioids and use of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, and carfentanil have become increasingly common, putting the safety of staff, inmates and visitors at risk. From mail-rooms to drones in the yard, these drugs have consistently found their way into correctional institutions, leaving officers exposed and inmate consumers susceptible to the dangers of the opioid epidemic. Despite increased awareness and focus on prevention, the volume and availability of these drugs remains steady and continues to wreak havoc on the corrections system.

The CDC estimates that fentanyl, which can be deadly at 3 milligrams, is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. For traffickers, the high potency of these drugs, coupled with a willingness of those incarcerated to pay 10 times more than on the street, makes them ideal for smuggling into facilities and distributing to addicts in desperate need of their next fix.

In the past year, states have reported discovering opioids in the pages of books, sewn into clothing or found partially dissolved or crushed into postage stamps, envelopes and book bindings.

Last week in Ohio, 23 correctional officers were sent to the hospital after being exposed to fentanyl, demonstrating the grave risks officers face when shaking down cells, checking mail, doing pat downs or simply working in an area where the drug is unknowingly present.

Corrections departments are also asked to serve as drug rehabilitation clinics but given few resources to combat the problem effectively.

Yet, with advancements in technology and the creation of new laws, the role of corrections is often overlooked. In states all over the country, law enforcement and other first responders have been granted the right to administer naloxone, a potentially life-saving medicine designed to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

In Michigan, state corrections officers are not authorized by law to carry naloxone and treatments are not readily available within housing units. If an officer identifies an inmate in the throes of overdose, they must either request that a nurse or physician respond from the medical unit or call upon another officer to retrieve the drug from its storage location. The time lost between recognizing the symptoms and medical staff arriving on scene could be the difference between life and death.

Potter writes: "In Michigan, state corrections officers are not authorized by law to carry naloxone and treatments are not readily available."

So, what can be done? First, recognize corrections officers as first responders and allow us to carry and administer life-saving drugs such as naloxone. By doing so, we create an alert and well-trained workforce with the skills and knowledge to impact the opioid crisis on the front lines and provide on-the-spot care.

If we want to truly impact this crisis, we must stop the flow of fentanyl into this country. If we do not, the corrections system will serve as a warehouse for countless Americans unable to get the necessary help and rehabilitation they so desperately need and continue the cycle of addiction back into our communities.

Andy Potter is a former corrections officer and the Executive Director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, a public sector union located throughout the State of Michigan.