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Sharp Rise in Overdose Deaths In Jails and Prisons

Barbed wire fencing
Barbed wire fencing outside a prison in Cieszyn, Poland. (Photo: Pawel Czerwinski)

Federal data shows a rise in drug overdose deaths inside prisons and jails across the country. County jails saw a 200% increase from 2001 to 2018, but the rise in state-run prisons is even more dramatic at 600%. Virginia falls near the middle of the pack in the rate of overdose deaths.

A new report from criminal justice publication The Marshall Project looks at what’s behind the data. Beth Schwartzapfel is a staff writer.

“It should come as no surprise, despite walls, razor wire, etc., prisons are part of the larger society for better or for worse,” they said. “And what happens outside is going to be reflected inside.”

U.S. overdose deaths hit a record 93,000 last year.

For years, Schwartzapfel said public health experts encouraged prisons and jails to offer medication for substance abuse disorder, which can include Suboxone and Methadone. But they said correctional administrators are reluctant to provide those medications for a variety of reasons.

“One of those reasons is this perception that ‘why do they need it? There are no drugs in prison,’” they said. “Anybody who knows anything about what happens inside prisons in jails knows that’s not true. But it’s a lot harder to ignore that fact when you have hundreds of dead bodies every year from overdose inside prisons, where there are supposedly no drugs.”

Last year, a Virginia man sued the Department of Corrections because it required him to stop taking methadone before serving his sentence. The federal district court denied  his request, finding he could not show the medication was necessary and that he would suffer irreparable harm. An appeal is pending with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Earlier this year, the VDOC announced a pilot program that allows some probationers in two alternative incarceration programs to use medical treatments for narcotic dependence. But the VDOC does not allow prisoners inside state-run correctional facilities to take medications used to curb opioid addiction. 

Virginia jails had 42 deaths among those incarcerated in 2018, but data on the causes of those deaths are limited. 

“It has not been an issue in Virginia jails to an extent that I’m made aware of it,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association.”Virginia has high standards on jail administration, operations and healthcare. Each jail death is reported to the Virginia Local and Regional Jail Board Authority and investigated, and there are unannounced inspection visits by state officials to ensure compliance with jail standards.”

VPM reached out to the Virginia Local and Regional Jail Board Authority by email but did not receive a response.

According to VDOC spokesperson Lisa Kinney, Virginia prisons had three overdose deaths in 2018 and eight in 2019. She said there were two in 2020, but the VDOC is waiting for updated medical examiner’s reports so that number is subject to change.