The Chelan County Regional Justice Center is grappling with several issues being created by the proliferation of fentanyl use in the Wenatchee Valley.

The facility is still operating until quarantine protocols from the COVID-19 pandemic, which require new intakes to remain in isolation for a brief period - usually no more than two or three days - prior to joining the rest of the jail's inmate population.

This process utilizes one of the facility's roughly-four dozen isolation cells, which also serve the purpose of housing incoming prisoners who are detoxing from drug and alcohol additions.

The region's recent surge in fentanyl use is causing more incoming detainees at the jail to require isolation, and this in turn is placing a tremendous strain on the Justice Center's resources and personnel.

Jail director, Chris Sharp, says inmates who are detoxing from fentanyl require at least 72 hours in isolation and can sometimes spend three times as long there.

"These people are so sick that they can't move for three to ten days. They're sweating and have vomiting and diarrhea, so they get very dehydrated. So we have a re-hydration protocol for them and a dietary protocol as well as they wean off the drug. The other thing that fentanyl is causing is that, its detoxing process is so bad that we have inmates wanting to hurt themselves. So they go from being very sick to being on suicide watch, which takes up another one of our isolation cells."

Sharp says in his 23 years with the corrections system, the detoxification effects of fentanyl are by far and away the worst he's ever seen. He adds that even the longtime, recursive addicts whom he's encountered at the jail over the years say the detoxing process from fentanyl is egregiously more severe than any other drug they've ever been on - even heroin and methamphetamines.

The issues fentanyl is causing at the jail are also being compounded by a current lack of medical staffing, something Sharp says they've been attempting to rectify for almost eight months now.

"I went before the county commissioners in April and got their approval to greatly increase our wages for nursing staff at the jail and it was approved, but that still hasn't proven to be enough to get us any help. We even raised our starting salary levels up to Step Eight, which is the absolute maximum allowed under county codes. So we've maxed out on what we're willing to pay and yet we still have not been able to hire and retain two graveyard nurses, which we've been in need of for a while now. We also lost a dayshift nurse recently who took a different job because it was more lucrative for her and her family. But we're hopeful we'll be able to hire some of the folks we need in the new year."

Sharp adds that if he is unable to procure the medical staffing additions he needs sometime soon, he'll be going back to the county to ask for a change to the current salary and benefits structure for such employees.

The jail has a total 260 cells and has not come close to being at full capacity in recent months, but is consistently struggling to find enough space for its new inmates who require isolation for COVID-19 observation, detoxing, or something else.

Sharp says at no point will the Justice Center ever turn away those who are being booked for Class A or B violent offenses, domestic violence crimes, or DUI.

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