Salt Lake County program aims to combat the opioid crisis from inside jail

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — Salt Lake County has a new strategy to combat the opioid crisis from inside the county’s jail.

Speaking at the sheriff’s office on Wednesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson announced the expansion of the jail’s medication assisted treatment program. The new approach seeks to address the opioid epidemic by administering medication designed to treat addiction and providing patients with substance abuse counseling while they are in jail custody.

“Not only is this intervention the compassionate thing to do, it’s the cost-effective thing to do,” said Wilson, who hopes the expansion will curb recidivism rates for individuals struggling with substance abuse.

According to Brent Kelsey, assistant director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, 75% of people released from jail with an opioid addiction relapse within 90 days, sometimes fatally. Roughly 400 Utahns will die from opioid overdoses this year.

“Getting people through and out of our jail, making our jail experience a one-time stop ... is so important to our bottom line,” Wilson said.

Inmates who are booked in the Salt Lake County Jail are now evaluated by a medical team to see if they need treatment. Anyone experiencing withdrawals can meet with a counselor, who assesses the patient’s needs and puts together a medication plan. Weekly substance abuse counseling is then provided over the course of the patient’s treatment.

With three nurses, three substance abuse counselors, an office coordinator and a program manager, the program’s current capacity is 100 patients. The medications used in treatment vary between methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol.

When the inmates are released, Salt Lake County provides them with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and a bus token. If possible, transportation is arranged to a treatment center.

The county began expanding the program in June, and has since served over 200 people. Over those seven months, only 3% of the program’s participants returned to jail.

“We’re very proud of the program we have,” said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera. “It’s an effective program and it’s helping those who are in our community struggling with addiction.”

Integral to this expansion is Project Reality, a nonprofit that supports medication-assisted treatment services across Utah. Project Reality is one of several nonprofits that partner with the Salt Lake County Jail and help administer methadone treatments.

“Salt Lake County has one of the best systems I’ve ever seen,” said Linda Moore, executive director of Project Reality. “It’s an excellent system run by very forward-thinking people.”

Moore has been with Project Reality for 35 years and has seen a recent shift in the way jails address substance abuse. “The biggest change is the stigma,” she said, adding that state-funded programs give legitimacy to treatments like methadone, which are still subject to controversy.

“Methadone is the most highly evidence-based medication that exists, it’s highly proven. But people don’t trust that.”

With locations in Salt Lake, Utah and Carbon counties, Project Reality hopes the new treatment program can be a model for other Utah jails. Moore says patients are often shocked by the compassion and level of care received at the Salt Lake County Jail.

“Our theme here at the jail is the instillation of hope,” said Jimmie Long, the clinical services director for the Salt Lake County Jail. “We feel like mental health is extremely important.”

Long has worked at the jail for 13 years and is excited to see the county continue to prioritize treatment.

“It’s no longer a kind of black hole. It’s a receiving center and we provide lots of care.”

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Kyle Dunphey


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