RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As deaths from opioid overdoses continue to rise in Central Virginia and across the country, the Richmond jail is arming inmates with training they hope will help keep them alive once they’re released from custody.

Opioid deaths spiked in 2020, and 8News reported last year that the crisis continued through 2021 in the Central Virginia region.

(Chart courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

Inmates in the Richmond jail have been trained to use naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can block opiates and reverse the effects of an overdose, since 2018. According to Sheriff Antionette Irving, 140 of them have been trained to use the drug, commonly sold under the name Narcan, since the program began.

“When they are in our facility, they have an opportunity to get clean from their addiction,” she said. “It does not mean the addiction goes away. The addiction is still there. That’s the reality and we have to do something about that too.”

Recently, the jail has added training in the use of fentanyl tests in response to the growing role the synthetic opioid has played in overdose deaths. Twenty-eight inmates have received that training.

“Sometimes individuals don’t even know a substance is laced with fentanyl, which makes for a very dangerous and deadly situation because fentanyl is highly addictive and deadly,” said Sheriff Irving.

What is Harm Reduction?

Naloxone and fentanyl tests are just examples of harm reduction policies – practices with “a goal of reducing death and complications of addictions” without insisting on strict abstinence.

Dr. F. Gerard Moeller is a psychiatrist at VCU who researches the neurobiology of opioid addiction. He told 8News that harm reduction “has been shown to be effective in saving lives from overdose and reducing the spread of comorbid diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.”

He added that fentanyl was “a major factor in the recent increase in opioid overdose deaths,” and that it was often found as a contaminant in other street drugs.

Dziko Singleton is a co-coordinator of the Richmond Health Brigade’s harm reduction program, and she said the jail is responding to a very real need in the community.

“We have a lot of people come to our sites just for fentanyl test strips or Narcan,” she said.

In fact, the health brigade used to provide that very same training to inmates in the jail, before the COVID-19 pandemic ended their involvement.

“Ensuring that people have and can use Narcan is important,” said Colin King, the program’s other co-coordinator. “This is the same thing that we’ve pushed for for a while.”

What it Takes to Recover

Singleton and King cautioned that it takes more than harm reduction to break the cycle of addiction.

Singleton was incarcerated herself, and is now in recovery. She said putting people in jail for possessing small amounts of narcotics can prevent them from getting the help they need.

“No one should be in prison for a spoon of heroin,” she said.

And once people are released from jail, they can face challenges obtaining food, jobs and housing. While harm reduction may prevent some opioid deaths, King said the real question should be “What are the other resources to make sure people can sustain abstinence or recovery?”

While Sheriff Irving said she hoped the fentanyl tests would allow Richmond residents to “realize the danger and make an informed decision regarding the lethalness and not use,” King and Singleton cautioned that the tests have serious limitations.

“They test very specific types of Fentanyl and analogues,” King said. “These are a great tool, but they’re not the be-all, end-all.”