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Women inmates need addiction aid

Profile image for Dallas Morning News Editorial
Dallas Morning News Editorial

Jails in Texas are letting women with drug addictions die in alarming numbers. Women who arrive at local jails with untreated drug addictions are being left to tough out the early stages of cold-turkey withdrawal.

Too often, and especially when other mental health issues like depression or a past history of suicide attempts are present, that struggle proves fatal.

An investigative report by Dallas Morning News reporters Cary Aspinwall and Stephanie Lamm found that women are more likely than men to die of drug- or alcohol-related issues inside a jail cell.

They found that reforms recently passed by the Legislature to make jails safer focused on better mental health care for inmates, but overlooked special challenges presented by drug addiction and withdrawal.

Drug addiction and related causes are nearly twice as likely to be the reason women die in jail than the reason men die. Ten women died in Texas jails of drug-related causes between 2011 and 2016.

These cases are also often under-reported. When an investigation, for instance, shows that what had looked like a simple heart attack was in fact related to the stress brought on by unassisted withdrawal, the records kept by the Texas attorney general's office aren't always updated.

They need to be.

Too often in Texas, women remain in jail simply because they can't afford bail to get out. Local officials and the state must find ways to make it safer for inmates who arrive with drug addictions. Fortunately, there are fairly simple solutions that can help.

For instance, every inmate ought to be screened for drug use, and those on drugs or who are addicted must be seen by a health professional quickly. Any who are addicted should be monitored appropriately as they experience withdrawal.

Plus, patients who indicate a history of suicide attempts, or who say they are suicidal, should be confined in cells where suicide would be difficult.

These fixes should be made quickly at the local level. Dallas' jail has provided a welcome example of how to improve inmate safety by partnering with Parkland Hospital to make mental health services more readily available.

In Austin, lawmakers' most recent reforms must be expanded when the Legislature meets again in 2019. It needs to find money to help local jailers meet the new standards and expand those rules to take into account the special needs of inmates who arrive addicted to drugs.

These women who have died in their jail cells matter, just as all lives matter. It's Texas' responsibility to see to it that when officials take someone into custody, there are adequate safeguards to make sure they will survive the experience. That's not a very high standard, but Texas is failing to reach it.