WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — In the best of circumstances, withdrawal from drugs or alcohol can involve anything from anxiety to vomiting to abdominal cramps. But if not properly treated, withdrawal can lead to coma or even death.
A local woman has gone through detox herself several times, and she told us that the worst place you want to go through it is in jail.
This woman is a health care professional, so she brings a more informed perspective to this controversy than most. She was busted for drug possession and had to detox behind bars at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail over an extended weekend. She calls it inhumane, but the jail tells a very different story.
“I’ve been through (detox) numerous times myself, and it’s pretty brutal,” said the woman we are calling Sylvia.
She makes no secret of her ongoing dependence on opioids. It began when she started taking Percocet after a back injury.
“(I was) taking them more than prescribed, and when I ran out I ended up getting them off the street.”
Sylvia switched to heroin. “It spiraled out of control very quickly for me.”
Sylvia has also worked for 10 years as an ER nurse.
“Being in that profession for years and taking care of all kinds of people I would never have dreamed it could be that bad in the jail.”
Sylvia landed at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, busted for drug possession and forced to detox over a long holiday weekend.
“I was literally in a holding cell from Friday until Tuesday afternoon. They kept me locked down 24/7, and I did not leave that cell once they put me back in there.”
She let VPRJ staff know she was coming off of opioids, but says no one from the nursing staff ever came.
Sylvia says other women with her were detoxing as well.
“They were screaming and crying all night long, at times it sounded like I was in an insane asylum. It was brutal, it was pretty savage. We were treated worse than animals in there. We repeatedly were screaming out for help, had to kick the doors.”
And as a medical professional she says you can’t leave people in detox unattended.
“People could die, very easily. Especially there was one lady beside me that was detoxing from alcohol and benzos and she could have very well died.”
Sylvia told us about her previous times in detox, when her situation was closely monitored.
“I’ve been checked on every hour, vital signs at least every two hours for the first few days, medications given to prevent seizures.”
Sylvia tells a compelling story of her time at VPRJ, but according to superintendent Tony Pham, virtually none of it is true.
Pham says that weekend, the jail had its normal nursing staff level of four. Corrections officers reported only one person to nurses as possibly detoxing — and it was a male inmate, no females.
He says Sylvia was processed within 72 hours, which is the mandate. According to Pham, VPRJ’s guards are trained to know when a person is detoxing and to alert the nurses.
“I hold my staff accountable,” Pham told us. “But I don’t have anything to substantiate her claims.”
But Sylvia says being behind bars is bad enough, and what she needed was proper care, and not what she sees as neglect and judgment.
“At some point I could say that maybe that saved my life, because I don’t think I will ever go back to what I was doing from having to go through that. It was traumatic.”
Last month we showed you how the jail in Virginia Beach is treating inmates going through withdrawal with buprenorphine. It shortens the process to hours instead of weeks.
VPRJ’s superintendent says the facility currently does not use buprenorphine to address addiction problems.