Staff at the Umatilla County Jail deal with addicts every day. Sheriff Terry Rowan said he wants to find a way to change that.

“Essentially what we’re trying to do is to make the people that come out of the jail in better shape than when they came in,” Rowan said.

The sheriff participated in Friday’s discussion in Pendleton with Rep. Greg Walden on fighting the opioid epidemic. Rowan said the treatment providers there led him to consider if the county jail could do some intervention. He said his interest piqued after reading an email from the National Sheriff’s Association on jails using “medication-assisted treatment,” or MAT — pharmacotherapy to treat inmates for recovery from substance abuse.

Only a handful of jails are trying this, he said, and the nearest is the Snohomish County Jail in Everett, Washington, which started a medically assisted detoxification program for inmates in January. Rowan said he met Monday with Dr. Dan Marier to look into the matter further. Marier recently retired from his Pendleton practice but now works in detoxification with Dr. Joel Rice of La Grande. Both doctors participated in the meeting with Walden, where Rice said jail can help people get clean, but staying clean requires diligent follow-through from service providers.

Jail commander Capt. Stewart Harp said the jail operates a small medical detoxification process now for inmates coming in high or drunk, and that can create a bottleneck at intake.

“You can’t put someone who is high on meth in the same room with someone who is clean and about to get out,” Harp said. “Can you see how counter-productive that is?”

And the opioid epidemic requires staff to adhere to strict procedures to stay safe from dangerous street drugs, particularly fentanyl.

“Just getting exposure to the skin can kill you,” he said.

Beyond gloves, deputies at times don goggles during strip searches. Corrections staff also no longer pass along possible drugs they find in an inmate’s clothes.

Harp explained staff used to give those substances to an evidence technician, who in turn would take them to the Oregon State Police crime lab for testing. The careful steps helps ensure the chain of custody, he said, but also carried the risk of exposure to sheriff’s staff.

“In some cases,” Harp said, “we’re just going to destroy it rather than risk exposure.”

That means passing on a contraband charge, but he said the safety of the staff and occupants of the jail has to take priority.

Rowan said while he is kicking the tires on inmate detoxification he remains steadfast in his commitment to obtaining the $1.1 million to remodel the jail to accommodate offenders with mental health issues. He said both are part of the spectrum of what the jail has to take on.

Big questions remain about the feasibility and even regulatory hurdles of medication-assisted treatment, Rowan said, but the process carries promise. He said policing is good about the who, what, when and where of crime, but not so much the why.

“If we can get to the why, we can make it where that individual doesn’t commit the crime again,” he said. “Maybe we can break the cycle.”

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