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Sheriff: 5 to 8 heroin addicts booked in Chesterfield jail every day

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Brandon Warren's addiction to opioids and other drugs began after an innocent trip to the dentist.

"When I was 27 I had my wisdom teeth cut out," Warren explained. "I kept getting dry sockets and they kept giving me the pills."

The pills were narcotics prescribed by doctors to numb the pain in his mouth.

But, those prescriptions eventually went away.

"About a month later the pills were gone and I was physically sick. It was like the worst flu you've ever had. I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm a pill head. I'm a junky,'" he described.

Warren then sought out illegal substances - not to get a high he said - but to avoid the withdrawal symptoms. He found himself in trouble with the law and now sits inside Chesterfield County Jail awaiting release.

Warren's story is not unique, as Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard found out when he took the position.

Anywhere from five to eight inmates addicted to heroin enter his jail per day, Leonard admitted.

From 2012 to 2015, the total number of heroin overdoses (fatal and nonfatal) increased by more than 250 percent, according to the Sheriff's Office. During that same time period, the number of deaths rose 350 percent.

Four people died due to a heroin overdose in 2012. In 2015, that number grew to 18 overdose deaths.

The alarming statistic prompted Leonard and his office to start a recovery program several years ago using its own financial resources, and volunteers from addiction recovery organizations, like the McShin Foundation.

About 40 men and 40 women now take part in the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP).

Entering its third year, the inmates eat, sleep, and live together with the same common goal - to get clean.

"[Heroin] doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re black or white, how much money you have. The end of the day it wants your life," Warren told a group of state leaders Tuesday morning.

In that group was Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and other state leaders, including Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran.

For about an hour the inmates and officials asked questions about what made Leonard's recovery program so successful and what could be improved on. In 2017, CBS 6 reported Chesterfield inmates addicted to heroin asked judges for a longer jail stay so they could complete HARP.

"This HARP program is the best thing going once you're incarcerated," Warren said.

Warren shared a story of a friend who wanted to be sent to jail to get addiction help because he couldn't find a program on the streets.

"What we need out there are different avenues when you're going through the motions and turmoils and stress," inmate Thomas Doogall said. "When it's building up and you're just ready to end it, [addicts] need something out there."

The program includes medical, clinical, peer-to-peer, and mental health services for inmates hoping to overcome addiction. 

HARP also assists inmates in getting professional aftercare when they are released from jail.

The inmates visited several schools to warn students about the dangers of drug use first hand.

"You can't have an authority figure tell you, 'Just say no. Don't do drugs,'" Sheriff Leonard explained. "You have to have a peer come in and say, 'I was once where you were. Now I'm in jail.'"

Governor Northam suggested bringing inmates with him when he visited doctors studying at medical schools.

"To have some of these folks come with me would be powerful," Northam said. "To teach young doctors to see what happens when you get that prescription pad out."

A majority of inmates raised their hands when asked who became addicted to opioids prescribed by a doctor prior to their addiction to heroin.

The Sheriff's Office said a few inmates become re-offenders after participating in HARP for a minimum of 30 days.

The inmates will tell you they're in this fight together.

"What helps us in here is a sense of brotherhood," Warren said. "What this program is is hope."