Opioid epidemic causing all-time high of female inmates at Virginia jail, officials say

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WTVR) -- Recent statistics have shown a rapid increase in the number of women in jail. In fact, this past week, Henrico Jail saw an all-time high of 302 incarcerated females since it was first established in 1634.

The opioid epidemic has caused thousands of women, like 24-year-old Tiffany McCoy, to end up behind bars.

"This time I lost my daughter. I lost everything. I came out of jail with nothing," she said.

What opioids do to your health
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What opioids do to your health

Opioid painkillers capitalize on our body's natural pain-relief system. We all have a series of naturally produced keys ("ligands") and keyholes ("receptors") that fit together to switch on our brain's natural reward system — it's the reason we feel good when we eat a good meal or have sex, for example. But opioids mimic the natural keys in our brain — yes, we all have natural opioids! When they click in, we can feel an overwhelming sense of euphoria.

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Opioid painkillers can have effects similar to heroin and morphine, especially when taken in ways other than prescribed by a doctor.

When prescription painkillers act on our brain's pleasure and reward centers, they can make us feel good. More importantly, though, they can work to reinforce behavior, which in some people can trigger a repeated desire to use.

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You may also feel sleepy.

Opioids act on multiple brain regions, but when they go to work in the locus ceruleus, a brain region involved in alertness, they can make us sleepy. Why? The drugs essentially put the brakes on the production of a chemical called norepinephrine, which plays a role in arousal.

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Your skin may feel flushed and warm.

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You'll begin to feel their effects 10 to 90 minutes after use, depending on whether they're taken as directed or used in more dangerous ways.

Some drugmakers design versions of their medications to deter abuse. Extended-release forms of oxycodone, for example, are designed to release slowly when taken as directed. But crushing, snorting, or injecting the drugs can hasten their effects.

It can also be deadly. Between 2000 and 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from overdoses involving opioid painkillers and heroin, a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. The most commonly prescribed painkillers were involved in more overdose deaths than any other type of the drug.

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Your breathing will slow as well.

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Depending on the method used, the effect can last anywhere from four to 12 hours.

For severe pain, doctors typically prescribe opioid painkillers like morphine for a period of four to 12 hours, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because of their risks, it's important to take prescription painkillers only according to your physician's specific instructions.

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Overdosing can stop breathing and cause brain damage, coma, or even death.

A 2014 report from the American Academy of Neurology estimates that more than 100,000 Americans have died from prescribed opioids since the late 1990s. Those at highest risk include people between 35 and 54, the report found, and deaths for this age group have exceeded deaths from firearms and car crashes.

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Combining them with alcohol or other drugs — even when taken according to the directions — can be especially deadly.

Since they slow breathing, combining opioid painkillers with other drugs with similar effects can drastically raise the chances of accidental overdose and death.

Yet they're often prescribed together anyway, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Unfortunately, too many patients are still co-prescribed opioid pain relievers and benzodiazepines [tranquilizers]," the institute said. In 2011, 31% of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths involved these drugs.

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Abusing opioid painkillers has been linked with abusing similar drugs, like heroin.

A CDC report found that people who'd abused opioid painkillers were 40 times as likely to abuse heroin compared with people who'd never abused them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that close to half of young people surveyed in three recent studies who'd injected heroin said they'd abused prescription painkillers before they started using heroin.

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You may also develop a tolerance for the drugs so that you need more to get the same effect over time.

Tolerance to opioid painkillers happens when the brain cells with opioid receptors — the keyholes where the opioids fit — become less responsive to the opioid stimulation over time. Scientists think that this may play a powerful role in addiction.

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Suddenly stopping the drugs can result in withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Taking prescription painkillers for an extended period increases the likelihood that your brain will adapt to them by making less of its own natural opioids. So when you stop taking the drugs, you can feel pretty miserable. For most people, this is uncomfortable but temporary.

But in people who are vulnerable to addiction, it can be dangerous because it can spurn repeated use.

"From a clinical standpoint, opioid withdrawal is one of the most powerful factors driving opioid dependence and addictive behaviors," Yale psychiatrists Thomas Kosten and Tony George write in a 2002 paper in the Journal of Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.

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McCoy has struggled with addiction since high school. Her habit has reduced her to desperate means that led to three jail sentences.

"I stole from my parents. I stole from my family. I had to do things with my body that I wasn't comfortable with to get money to support my habit," McCoy admitted.

With so many incarcerated females in the Richmond area, Jessica Hall, Director of Judicial Programs for the McShin Foundation, and Erin Mayberry, Director of Female Programs for the McShin Foundation say that there needs to be a greater emphasis on the recovery process for addicts.

"Everyone keeps talking about awareness. We're aware there is an opiate epidemic. Where's recovery at in this?" asked Hall.

While several local and regional jails are offering programs, such as Pamunkey Regional Jail's McShin Program, Henrico Jail's Rise and Orbit Programs, Chesterfield's HARP Program and Richmond City's REAL Program, space is limited to just a handful of inmates. Entering one of these rehabilitation programs is difficult, but finding a bed in a half-way house is even more difficult.

"We continue to build jail programs, but we have to continue to build recovery houses, so we have options to give people when they re-acclimate back into society," said Mayberry.

The McShin Foundation is an addiction and recovery program based in Henrico County. The foundation currently has two halfway houses that provide 29 beds for women. But with thousands more in need, McShin says the political climate needs to change, so that women, like those in the Hanover House, have a place to go for help before they end up behind bars, or even worse, die from an overdose.

The Hanover House has taught Tiffany McCoy life skills and has provided her with a new chance at life outside of jail.

"After 6 months, I hope to have a job; I hope to have my daughter back," she said. "Eventually, I'd like to be out on my own, working and living a normal life."

The McShin Foundation hopes to open two more half-way houses, one for men and one for women, in the coming months.

McShin relies solely on private funding and donations to support their programs, while several local and regional jails must rely on existing funds to facilitate rehabilitation for incarcerated individuals.

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