Last July, more than a dozen people died from heroin – the high point in a year with a record-breaking 46 overdose deaths.
Those numbers spurred legislation and action from the state level down, particularly with regards to education. Recently, the DuPage County Sheriff's Office and the Winfield addiction treatment facility Stonybrook Center teamed up to target some of the residents most vulnerable to fatal overdoses: inmates at the DuPage County Jail.
"If someone stays two months, gets out, and tries to use the same amount as when they were incarcerated, they are most likely to overdose," said DuPage County Sheriff's Office Corrections Bureau Chief Shawana Davis.
Davis said the office has implemented a new hour-long voluntary class to educate offenders on the dangers of drug use and the risks of overdose.
She said the average length of stay for inmates at the county jail is 24 days, and that it is there that they go through opiate detox and withdrawal.
Stonybrook Owner and Program Director Cookie Walter said it only takes four days without opiates for addicts' tolerance to recede. When they try to use the same amount of drugs they did before withdrawal, their bodies can't process it, often leading to overdoses, she said.
Davis said a 2007 study conducted in Washington state found the risk of death among recently released inmates was 3.5 times higher than that of other state residents and was 12.7 times higher within the first two weeks. During that time, the leading cause of death was overdose, the study said.
That makes education during incarceration critical, she said.
Walter said Stonybrook took up the sheriff's office's partnership offer after several patients from the center's methadone program spent time in jail and fatally overdosed before returning to the facility.
"So we knew the risk was very pronounced and needed to be addressed, so we were happy to be invited to do the class," she said.
Davis said the class involves a pre- and post-test on overdose and drug use, and teaches offenders where to get help upon release, as well as some of the science behind addiction and overdose.
The class's goal is to encourage abstinence, she said
"The best way to avoid an overdose is not to use," she said. "The main focus is to educate them to be aware of overdosing and how to avoid them and how to avoid relapse situations."
Stonybrook has led the class twice a week since May 21, Walter said, with eight to 10 people attending each session. As of a few weeks ago, nearly a third of the inmates in the class had overdosed previously, she said.
Walter compared the class to sex education. The focus is on getting them not to use and to enter treatment, but many times addicts are not ready. The hope is to help them live long enough to get to that point, she said.
"A mother of a boy who died said to me 'As long as they're breathing and they're alive, there's hope,'" she said. "But when they die, hope dies with them. ... With alcohol, with heroin, with whatever, that person has to come willingly to the table and say, 'Now I'm ready for a change.' Because trying to force them doesn't generally work."
Walter said she would like to see the class become mandatory for those in the criminal justice system for drug charges, and both Walter and Davis hope to expand the class to include friends and families of inmates so they, too, can understand of the signs and symptoms of addiction and overdose.