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Death Rates Rise in Prisons Due to Heroin Withdrawal

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Around 15 percent of the US prison population is addicted to heroin. A prison sentence can force users into sudden withdrawal, and without medical support and adequate supervision, withdrawal in prison — and efforts to avoid it — can be deadly.

As the rates of opioid abuse continue to rise, so do the rates of withdrawal-related deaths among inmates of large and small prison facilities around the country.

What Happens During Withdrawal?

Stopping heroin and other opioids brings on withdrawal symptoms within hours of the last dose. These symptoms can include:

Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin addicted inmates often resort to other opioids, which can lead to overdose.

  • Nausea and diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Runny nose
  • Agitation
  • Muscle aches and spasms
  • Extreme cravings for the drug
  • Suicidal thoughts

The severity of withdrawal symptoms can vary, but they typically peak within 72 hours and resolve within a week or so. Withdrawal itself generally isn’t life-threatening for those in reasonably good health. But conditions in prison and the experience of withdrawal itself can lead to death for heroin addicts behind bars

Limited Resources for Detox

Prison infirmaries typically aren’t designed for heroin detox and withdrawal, but for general medical care, so the medications and protocols used in private detox and rehab centers typically aren’t available for inmates who need them.

Prisoners may claim to have other health problems, such as the flu or a heart condition, in order to get relief from withdrawal symptoms – or they may hide their symptoms until they trigger an emergency such as extreme dehydration from vomiting, or cardiac arrest.

Prison health care providers and other staffers may not be trained to recognize withdrawal or to treat it. Without training and experience, staff may prescribe the wrong medications for withdrawal symptoms – or none at all. A negative attitude toward addicts may also mean that prison staffers don’t make it a priority to help those in withdrawal get safely through the process.

Self-Medication Raises Risks

Because getting professional help for withdrawal symptoms in prison can be difficult, inmates struggling with quitting heroin “cold turkey” look for ways to get through withdrawal on their own.That might mean sharing another inmate’s prescription medication, which can lead to overdosing and potentially lethal reactions. Or it might mean using heroin again.

Heroin and other drugs are often easily available in prisons. But addicts looking for a way to stop withdrawal symptoms face a number of risks, including death by overdose. Since sharing needles is common in prisons, users are also at risk for contracting HIV and AIDS.

Can I Withdraw from Heroin at Home?

Suicide Risk Increases in Prison

Suicidal thoughts and depression are serious symptoms of heroin withdrawal, and overall, heroin users are 14 times more likely to turn to suicide as their peers who don’t use the drug. Without counseling and interventions, that rate increases in prisons as inmates struggling with physical pain and intense cravings for the drug may turn to suicide as a way out.

The rising death rates related to heroin in US prisons is leading to calls for an overhaul of the prison medical system and improvements in the ways prison staffs treat heroin users in withdrawal. Among the changes addiction and rehab specialists hope to see:

  • Better evaluation and supervision of addicted inmates
  • Up to date detox and withdrawal support
  • Training in addiction issues for prison staff
  • Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine
  • Counseling and other support services during and after withdrawal

As heroin use rises, so does the risk of withdrawal-related death among heroin users in prison.  But with improvements in prison medical care and support services, a prison term for addicted inmates doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

Are you or a loved one struggling with an addiction to heroin? We’re here to help. Contact us at 800-662-8079(Who Answers?) for the answers you need today.

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