Opioid Users Are Filling Jails. Why Don’t Jails Treat Them?

Dave Mason, 43, and Dani Herget, 21, of New Haven, Conn., have both struggled with opioid dependency. Mason has been jailed many times and received methadone treatment in jail.

Dave Mason, 43, and Dani Herget, 21, of New Haven, Conn., have both struggled with opioid dependency. Mason has been jailed many times and received methadone treatment in jail. (Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times)

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August 4, 2017

When Dave Mason left jail in October 2015 after his 14th criminal conviction, the odds were good that he would end up dead.

A man with a longtime heroin addiction, Mr. Mason was entering one of the deadliest windows for users returning to the streets: the first two weeks after release from jail or prison, when they often make the mistake of returning to a dose their body can no longer handle.

Standing outside the New Haven Correctional Center, clutching his few belongings in a brown paper bag, Mr. Mason appeared precariously close to taking that path. His ride never showed up. He had no money, no contact with his family and nowhere to live.

But instead of panhandling for cash to score drugs, he went to a methadone clinic, determined to stay clean.

Methadone was not a new thing for Mr. Mason, 43. He had been on it before he went to jail for cashing forged checks. But it is almost always banned in jail, increasing the chances of relapse. Of the nation’s 5,100 jails and prisons, fewer than 30 offer opioid users the most proven method of recovery: administering methadone or buprenorphine, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.

For more than a year, FRONTLINE and The New York Times followed 10 newly released prisoners in Connecticut, including Mr. Mason, as they tried to start over. Though the stories were about the criminal justice system, they were also, inevitably, about addiction — three out of four inmates in Connecticut have a drug or alcohol problem, according to the Department of Correction, and the number who use opioids has soared.

For these 10, there were many setbacks, and what counted as success was modest. Mr. Mason met up with his girlfriend, Dani Herget, who at the time also used heroin; slept outdoors; panhandled for money; and used a wide variety of street drugs. Twice he was ordered into treatment, and once he was sent back to jail. Ultimately, he reunited with Ms. Herget, 21.

But despite his self-destructive tendencies, he says he stayed off heroin and has ultimately been able to moderate his use of other drugs.

Read the full version of this story by going to The Times’ website. The FRONTLINE documentary, Life On Parole, was produced in association with The Times and is available online now.

Timothy Williams, The New York Times

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