GREENFIELD — Kenneth Ford overdosed six times.
It didn’t stop him from looking for a way to cure his pain. When he couldn’t afford the pain medication, he turned to a cheap alternative. Heroin became his drug of choice to treat various injuries sustained over the years. And as he became dependent on the substance, he chased its high, using stronger versions of the drug to make himself feel better, physically and emotionally.
Cheating death became part of the sensation, he said. But now, after 15 years of addiction, he’s just trying to escape it.
Ford and inmates in the Hancock County Jail are now being offered a medication that blocks the high heroin and other opioid-based drugs create and reduces cravings as offenders leave the facility to live on their own again. And one month later, they’ll be offered another dose — provided they pass a drug screen.
So far, 20 offenders have received the medication, called Vivitrol, since early April before heading out to serve their sentences on work release, probation or in halfway house.
And of the 10 who returned for a second shot, six were still clean. None of the four that failed the drug test, however, tested positive for heroin, and stakeholders in the new program consider that a victory.
When paired with counseling, the medication helps those addicted to heroin or prescription painkillers, preventing relapses and helping people get clean, officials said.
Organizers said they weren’t expecting a perfect success rate; some drug addicts, they knew, would seek a high from some other drug. But any progress is more than the county could boast a year ago.
The Vivitrol program is open to any inmate who admits to having abused narcotics before their arrest, even if they aren’t facing drug charges. A judge can order the offender to participate in the Vivitrol program or offenders can sign on voluntarily, said Amy Ikerd, a probation department crime-prevention specialist, who led the charge to bring Vivitrol to Hancock County.
Inmates receive their first injection after a two-week detox in the jail. As they finish their sentence in the low-security community corrections facility or on probation, they are supervised by an officer who ensures they attend 12-step meetings or other drug counseling and get their next shot.
Word of the initiative spread quickly through the jail, where some inmates, like Zachary Schwartz, tired of being locked up for months at a time because of their drug dependency.
Schwartz, who received his first shot last week, said he’d been abusing narcotics and heroin for 10 years, ever since a knee surgery put him on the prescription painkillers he eventually developed an addiction to.
For years, he held down a steady job while popping pills. He managed to stay clean for about 11 months before his last relapse, a setback that landed him in jail on drug possession charges.
Now, he’s hoping the new medication will finally help him curb his addiction.
The program was created by leaders of local law enforcement who saw the same sunken faces pass by again and again, struggling to overcome the cycle of addiction and crime. They began to laying the groundwork for the program that exists now last year.
Local pharmacies and healthcare providers quickly signed up to help in the effort, creating an advisory board that now oversees the initiative.
And though it’s in the fledgling stages, the program has been successful so far, Ikerd said.
Vivitrol shots stay in a person’s system for 30 days, blocking the dopamine the brain releases by an opioid-based drug. If a person uses heroin while Vivitrol is in their system, they’ll immediately experience the same flu-like systems they get during detox or withdrawal. Instead of getting high, they’ll get painfully sick — a feeling that would discourage any drug user from picking up a needle, Ford said.
“It takes that choice away,” he said.
Offenders can still get high if they use a different kind of drug, and supporters of Vivitrol knew that from the beginning, said Capt. Andy Craig, the county’s jail commander.
Of the four offenders in the Vivitrol program who failed drug screens since April, three had used methamphetamine, and one had used synthetic marijuana, Craig said. Some might be granted a second chance with Vivitrol — but only after 30 days in jail as punishment, he said.
Counseling and a lot of willpower are important aspects of the new program, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s department’s chief deputy, who sits on the advisory board.
When offenders leave the jail, they are instructed to attend narcotics anonymous meetings or other peer recovery groups regularly so they can find support and encouragement to break their bad habits. Without it, they’re treating only part of the problem, Burkhart said.
“You can’t just give them a shot and say they’ll be better,” he said. “There are physical and psychological parts of (addiction). We can get rid of the physical part in jail, make them sit for long enough that they aren’t physically dependent on it anymore. But we have to get their brain to realize they don’t need it anymore.”
Those who participate in the county’s Vivitrol program agree to take three injections of the medication, the first two of which are given to the offender free of charge, Ikerd said.
The first injection, which the offender receives from a nurse in the jail, is a free sample provided by Vivitrol’s manufacturer, Alkermes. The second is paid for by the state’s Recovery Works program and can be provided by a local healthcare provider. Locally, the Jane Pauley Community Health Center or Community Behavioral Health’s Gallahue Mental Health Center have both signed on as injections sites in Greenfield.
Additional shots are paid for by the offender but are covered by Medicaid, the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP) and private insurance, Ikerd said. It costs about $4.
Like any of the county’s drug treatment initiatives, it’s up the offender to commit themselves to the program in order to successfully stay clean.
For Ford, who was headed into a work-release program, Vivitro feels like a bridge to finally getting his life back together. He knows those who don’t suffer from addiction might not understand the struggle he and others like him face each day.
Right now, Vivitrol seems like the only way out, he said.
“Eventually when you lose everything, when you hit bottom, sooner or later there is nowhere to go but up,” Ford said.