A Sobering Story: Most crime tied to drug scourge
If he had to put a number on it, roughly 75 percent of people entering Indiana County Jail have, to one degree or another, an issue with drug or alcohol use, said Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty.
“It’s societal right now,” Dougherty said. “The majority of people we’re arresting are tied up in some way with drugs and alcohol.”
Chief Public Defender Donald McKee said Dougherty’s estimate may even be “conservative.”
“Most of our clients that are doing burglaries, robberies, thefts, writing bad checks are all drug related,” he said.
“They’re drug related in a sense that these people were looking for a way to find money to buy their drugs.”
Warden Sam Buzzinotti declined to offer a more precise figure on the number of inmates who have drug and alcohol issues, citing security concerns.
But no matter the exact number, county officials said there are many. And jail is not exactly a supportive place to be, especially for those who have become physically dependent upon a substance.
Incarceration brings an abrupt halt to their use and forces them into withdrawal. But because the jail has no detox program, inmates must suffer through withdrawal symptoms in their cells.
“When they detox, they’re basically cut cold turkey. There’s no medical program or treatment like they would receive at a facility where (the withdrawal) is medically monitored,” Dougherty said.
For the most part, withdrawal symptoms are extremely unpleasant, but generally not life-threatening. However, in some cases the symptoms can be dangerous, depending on the substance the user has become dependent upon.
So, Dougherty said, the jail keeps a close eye on withdrawing inmates and takes them to a hospital if and when medical issues arise.
But otherwise, they’re not given treatments in the jail that could alleviate the symptoms.
“The guards are watching them and checking them, but unless it’s a major medical issue, they’re not getting that attention,” he said.
Moving beyond withdrawal, Dougherty said, there are programs run by The Open Door to help inmates work on overcoming their substance abuse.
Dougherty said the county’s drug problem isn’t likely to improve on its own, and indications are that it’s only going to get worse.
“More and more people tied in with the system are involved with drugs and alcohol,” he said.
McKee said he saw an upswing in the drug problem about five years ago.
But, he said, many others don’t believe Indiana County has a drug problem at all. If they’re not the victim of a robbery or other crime, they’re unaware of the influx of drugs and the drug-related crimes taking place in the county, he said.
Drug use and the associated problems are not unique to Indiana County, McKee said.
“Surrounding counties are facing the same problems that we are,” he said. “It’s a problem in western Pennsylvania and the whole region. It’s not just us.”
There are no easy answers to the problem, McKee said.
“There are a lot smarter people trying to figure this out: How do we do this? How do we manage it?” he said. “If there was an easier answer it would have been done years ago. There doesn’t seem to be an answer.”
McKee said he believes state-run treatment programs need to be implemented to address the problem.
“You can’t put every person that’s using heroin in jail,” he said, adding that roughly $2 billion of the state budget goes to the Department of Corrections. “If it’s a nonviolent drug user … they have to develop some new programs that will address treatment as opposed to incarceration.”
McKee said the county’s drug treatment court “does a fine job,” but it doesn’t address every drug user.
He said there needs to be other programs to get users help, both before they fall into the criminal justice system and after they are freed from it.
McKee said he has had clients who tell him “they’d rather sit in jail because it’s the longest they’ve been clean, and if they get out, they know they’re going to use.”