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Fighting Opioid Addiction from Inside a Jail Cell

La Crosse, Wis. (WXOW) – The connection between drug addiction and crime is a clear one and it often ends in jail. But, inside the La Crosse County Jail, a jail sentence can also begin the end of addiction.

If you’d ask Jeremy Bakkestuen to calculate the time he’s spent in jail. He’d tell you it’s about 4 years. Most of that in the La Crosse County Jail. “I’ve been in jail for disorderly conduct, battery, thefts, breaking and entry, tresspassing. You name it. I’ve done it,” the Viroqua native said.

He’s never served time for a drug charge, but Bakkestuen said his opioid addiction spun the revolving door of recidivism. “I lost my house, my wife, my daughter. I lost my job. When you use you don’t feel. You don’t care about anything. I stopped caring about myself.”

Bakkestuen admitted he existed in that haze numb to what was happening around him.
“It’s close to 20 people I know that have overdosed,” he said, after revealing that he had od’d three times himself.

A probation officer helped Bakkestuen do what he hadn’t been able to do on his own, get admitted into the closest available detox center, 90 miles away in Eau Claire. Now, sober for more than a year, he meets weekly with a substance abuse counselor who says he knows the path that many addicts are walking.

Troy Harris left his job in law enforcement to get treatment for alcohol addiction. That lead him to launch a brand new career and he’s seeing more and more people come to his door desperate for help.
“I had a client come in a couple of weeks ago. He has a very good job. Owns his own home. He’s a heroin addict. He wanted help,” recalled Harris. “It was four o’clock in the afternoon, I couldn’t get him in anywhere. And I said, ‘Let me make some calls tomorrow’. I haven’t seen him back.  And I read his obituary. He overdosed. That is when… when this job really gets hard.”

The absence of a detox center in La Crosse is what Harris calls a crisis. He said if one existed, he believes the patient who came to his office asking for help, would still be alive. “Because he wanted it. he was here for help. and that’s the epidemic. That’s the crisis in this community. Where do we send these people?”

It’s a question the Alliance to HEAL, a group of community stakeholders, is trying to answer. Harris is part of that group, so are leaders inside the La Crosse County Jail which has become the defacto detox center.

“We book about 5,600 people a year,” said Captain Steven Anderson, with the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department. “For the last three years its been about 40 percent of them, or 2,300 every year, come in so high they have to be placed on a medical watch.”

According to Sheriff Jeff Wolf, the Alliance identified the jail as an important place to provide treatment to those struggling with drug abuse. “What we did with our medical provider is establish a Vivtrol program for inmates who are looking for treatment, who are looking for assistance, so when they are released from jail they have some help,” explained the sheriff.

Vivitrol is a prescription injection. It’s non-addictive, it’s not a narcotic and can only be used after opioid detox. Which makes the La Crosse County Jail an optimal place to administer it.

“I think a lot of people think we throw them in a hole and feed them bread and water. we do not,” added Captain Anderson. “Those days are long gone. I don’t think they are realizing the educational and the other opportunities we are giving these people when they are in jail.”

Medically assisted treatment, or MAT, is just one of the dozens of innovative programs and support services available to inmates. “The overall philosophy of changing minds, keeping people from coming back here. That’s what our goal is,” underlined Sheriff Wolf.

Jeremy Bakkestuen, who is using Vivitrol to support his sobriety, says the cravings for a drug that once consumed him, have disappeared. He wants others to know recovery is possible and there are people to help you, “If you want to get high you do everything you can. If you want sobriety go out and find it. Put the work in.  Work for something better. All the effort and time you spend, spend it on something positive.”

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Andrea Albers

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