“It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s a tool in our toolbox,” said Norrie Gregoire, director of corrections in Walla Walla County.

He introduced Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in March to the jail’s options for those wanting to get off opioids and other drugs.

And although he said he had some skepticism at first, he and others have seen it help addicts since then, and wanted to let residents know medication was a good choice for some inmates. For those on medication and others trying to get off opioids, the program offered wraparound services, such as therapy, and linked inmates to outside resources to help them stay off drugs after they were released, he said.

Becky Groom, a contracted nurse for the facility, said she gives inmates medication for MAT, usually Suboxone three times a week, and has seen vast improvements since the program was added. She said before MAT, someone in withdrawal would just get a mixture of drugs, such as hydroxyzine, Zofran, and Klonopin, to help ease anxiety and other symptoms.

“They relieve some of the symptoms,” Groom said. “(withdrawal is) a lot like the flu… They’re just miserable and grumpy.”

She added symptoms typically last about five days, depending on how long and how much addicts had used.

Since MAT’s addition, Groom said drugs, such as Suboxone — which is used at the jail — alleviate symptoms within three hours. People also reported having zero cravings for their drug of choice after taking Suboxone, she said.

Groom said she believed the program worked.

“Because it saves a lot of lives,” Groom said of why it was needed.

She added Suboxone worked better than any other drug she’d ever provided to people who wanted to get off and stay off opioids.

The treatment is given in sublingual form after sweeping inmates’ mouths for foreign objects, she said. The under-the-tongue treatment was common, she said, adding the number of times per week it was given had changed at the jail a few times, with the current thrice-weekly chosen because it was harder for inmates to give it to another inmate: They would have more withdrawal symptoms, as they’d have to wait for the next time it was given.

As of early September, 11 inmates were taking medication for addiction, she said, and seemed to be having successful results.

Getting results

Besides immediate results, MAT has provided lasting impact for many, Groom and Gregoire said. However, Gregoire said he’s still worried some sober inmates would return to their old habits after being released, which could result in death.

“Their tolerance decreases… They go back to their same peer group and get a fatal dose (of drugs,” he said. He added he believed that has happened in the area.

Still, the positive outcomes outweighed the negative, he said, such as cost and lasting impact. It was about $23.80 per week per inmate for Suboxone, he said, which was cheaper than using a combination of drugs, at about $40 per week, due to the amount of medication required. Inmates were charged for any medical treatment not covered by their insurance, with the jail getting some help from county money. The amount of time people stayed on medication varied, depending on the person’s needs.

“A lot of people just really don’t take care of themselves on the streets,” he said. “It’s frustrating for Becky because she makes appointments on the outside (for inmates before being released) and they never follow through. They wind up back where they started.”

However, a couple handfuls of people who were rearrested only were in jail on technicalities, such as not checking in with their probation officer, instead of being on drugs and committing other crimes, Gregoire said. Those people had maintained their sobriety, he said.

“I like seeing those small victories,” Matt Stroe, jail commander, said. “Sometimes it takes baby steps.”

Taking steps

Five women in one cell at the jail were among those taking steps toward changing their lives, including Sonya Cantu, 49, of Walla Walla, said she’s been incarcerated most recently since Aug. 15 and has about another 10 months left on her sentence in jail for possessing meth. She said she submitted an application to participate in the program when it was offered, which hadn’t been available on her previous stays, and had enjoyed it so far. To be in the program, inmates must submit an application and abide by certain rules. In exchange, they’re given certain freedoms, such as art supplies, she explained.

“Everyone’s on the same page as I am,” Cantu said of her four cellmates. “There’s no judging… We all have a different story, but we work together.”

Cantu said she wasn’t taking medication for treatment, but participated in the program’s counseling, cognitive therapy, and other activities. She and her cellmates were also trustees, which meant they could do chores in exchange for walking outside while supervised.

One of her inmates, Crystal Velasquez, 34, of Milton-Freewater, said she’s had multiple run-ins with the law, with the most recent being charged with first-degree kidnapping, second-degree attempted robbery, and unlawful imprisonment, in connection to a woman’s beating and holding her against her will.

Velasquez said she expected the charges to be dropped, but since being booked on June 2 was taking advantage of MAT’s cognitive therapy, as she wasn’t taking medication, and planned to return to her tattoo apprenticeship at Inkspiration on Isaacs Avenue after she was released.

She said she’d relapsed on alcohol and meth right before her recent charge and wanted to remain sober because her life depended on it.

“I wasn’t supposed to make it,” Velasquez said. “But they (Gregoire, Stroe, others) advocated for me… We’re (inmates) really fortunate.”

“Women’s recovery is saving my life,” cellmate Leslie Moreno echoed.

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.