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New Denver Program Starts Heroin Treatment In Jail

DENVER (CBS4) - Heroin and opioid use in the Denver area is being described as an epidemic by health experts and law enforcement. And professionals in the local courts will tell you one of the biggest issues they face is the number of criminal offenders coming into jails with addiction issues.

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"In the last two years, we've seen a 47 percent increase in participants into our drug court that indicate heroin or other opioids are their primary drug of choice," said Scott Prendergast, probation supervisor for the Denver Drug Court.

Many jails in Colorado are simply not equipped to deal with the medical issues that go with handling an addicted inmate. The Denver jail is an exception. The jail currently allows inmates who are on methadone to continue getting their doses while in the jail.

"It is an important part of what we do. It's important that those folks are maintained on that drug while they're here," said Simon Crittle, spokesman for the Denver Sheriff's Department.

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Through a partnership with Denver Health Medical Center and the University of Colorado, the Denver Drug Court is taking addicts who've violated probation and getting them on a methadone treatment program to ease them off heroin and increase the odds they'll fully recover and stay out of trouble. This brand new program is called Medicated Assisted Therapy (MAT) Induction Pilot.

Methadone Dose (credit: CBS)

A longtime addict named Walter told CBS4 that methadone can make all the difference.

"The methadone enables me, and still enables me, to get through my day and not even think about using opiates," Walter told CBS4.

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Under the new program, inmates are evaluated by the team at Denver Health Medical Center's Correctional Care Center and then introduced to the methadone treatment.

LINK: Mental Health and Addiction Services at Denver Health Medical Center

"The physician will assess their opioid use disorder and begin the methadone or opioid replacement therapy at that time," said Lisa Gawenus, manager of Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at Denver Health Medical Center.

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The experts say starting the treatment in the stable environment of the jail is critical.

"This is a controlled, safe and secure environment where there are no other distractions," said Crittle.

After spending a weekend in jail getting adjusted to the new treatment, the offender's next stop is the Addiction Research and Treatment Services, or ARTS, at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. ARTS builds on the methadone treatment with counseling and other support services. The inmate will even get a volunteer escort from the jail to the ARTS program to sign up.

LINK: Addiction Research and Treatment Services at CU School of Medicine

"The peer specialist role to help that individual get from one place to the other is to provide that transition, that warm hand-off, that, 'I know what you've been through, I know where you're going, and everything is going to be okay,'" said Angela Bonaguidi, director of Adult Outpatient Services at ARTS.

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This new program is an innovative partnership between medical and justice agencies. The program is one-of-a-kind in the nation, and all involved hope that it will mean lasting success for its participants.

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