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In Louisville Jail, Women Struggle With Drug Detox

metro corrections

The blankets did little to dampen the coughs and groans.

The women were sick and struggling, battling the early stages of drug detox in one of the city's fastest growing addiction treatment facilities: the jail.

Last year, nearly 10,000 people — or almost a third of all inmates booked — actively detoxed in the jail, said Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton.

And many, like the women in yellow jumpsuits on the second floor on Wednesday, did so while lying under blankets in temporary beds on the floor of a cramped room, where the lights are rarely off and the air conditioner seemed to be running on high.

A marker board on the wall lists the women's names. Next to each is a letter representing the substance on which they are dependent. For many, that letter is an H.

"Heroin," said Ken Wright, the jail's substance abuse coordinator.

Wright conducts classes with inmates at the jail to help them understand addiction and how to beat it.

"This is a tragic thing that's going on here," he said as he looked around at the women on the floor. He pointed out red plastic bags near the bunks.

"Puke bags," he said.

Wright turned to a collage of newspaper clippings and handmade art hanging on the wall below a sign that read, "Angels in Heaven."

"These are persons who have died as a direct result of untreated addiction," he said. "We can't minimize the impact it's having on our community."

Wright teaches one of his substance abuse classes in a room across the hall from the detox cell. He pushes a message that addiction is a disease and that being addicted to a substance doesn't make someone a "bad person." He reiterated that few people choose to end up in jail or to be taken away from their children.

"This is as illness," he said.

Ideally, when the women on the floor heal, they'll have the desire and be able to make it over to his class, where they'll get the support they need to overcome their addiction, he said.

"It's not all gloom and doom," he said. "We're helping people."

With that help, Wright said, they'll perhaps establish a cycle that can break the addiction on the individual level and help turn back the epidemic that's plaguing cities across the country — and the jail in Louisville.

But first, the women will suffer through the sickness — still coughing and groaning in the cool concrete room.

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.