There's no simple way out of heroin addiction but jails can do better

— “The Arch” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

A young man died on Oct. 18 and his mother came to us, looking for answers.

We admire her courage in seeking the truth and in speaking out about her son’s death.

Maryanne Rappaport heard a television news description of attempted burglary in Guilderland and knew that the suspect was her son. Adam Rappaport, a bright and charismatic young man, had, at age 29, a life that was spinning out of control.

After a snowboard accident ruptured his spleen, he became hooked on the prescribed pain meds. When requirements tightened for oxycodone, he turned to heroin. He couldn’t hold a job and eventually lost his apartment. He’d used up his days for treatment and was living in the city mission.

His mother, who had been coached in the virtues of “tough love” by her Nar-Anon group (a 12-step program for the family and friends of drug addicts), knew that her son did well when his life had structure. She went to police, though it pained her, because she thought he would be safe in jail.

He asphyxiated himself in his jail cell and died in a hospital emergency room after his mother — faced with the choice of keeping alive a brain-dead son — had him taken off life support.

Some of the answers are simple and we found them through cooperative law-enforcement officials — a Guilderland police captain, a sheriff’s chief deputy, and the Albany County jail’s superintendent.

Other questions have no simple answer. They loom larger than the people enforcing the laws or running the jail. And they point to nationwide and worldwide problems with no easy solutions.

We’ll deal with the simple answers first. To start, the county jail has no written form for arresting officers to communicate with jail staff. “In many ways, suicide prevention begins at the point of arrest,” says a World Health Organization report, “Preventing Suicide in Jails and Prisons.”

Typically, said the Albany County jail’s superintendent, Christian Clark, “It’s a verbal from the officer bringing the inmate in.” A written form that tells jail staff about inmates’ suicidal tendencies or drug addictions would be a useful tool.

Second, we applaud the jail for having strategies in place — like constant observation or suicide-proof gowns instead of sheets — for inmates who have attempted suicide, but someone like Adam Rappaport who has had suicidal tendencies wouldn’t qualify for these. He would be safer, though, if not left alone. Reports from both the World Health Organization and the Federal Bureau of Prisons find that most suicides occur when inmates are alone, housed in single cells.

“It would be very difficult for you to commit suicide in a group setting,” Clark told us.

Granted, the county jail is constructed in such a way that most of the cells are single but we urge a plan be drawn up so that those inmates that even might be at risk for suicide be housed with others. Some prisons have successfully used a system that pairs at-risk inmates with “buddy” inmates.

Third, Adam Rappaport voluntarily went through a physical exam by hospital staff, said Clark, because of his heroin addiction. It’s good the jail has a protocol in place, checking pulse rate, sweating, restlessness, pupil size, bone or joint aches, and similar symptoms. But, because Rappaport didn’t show many symptoms, no further action was taken, said Clark. A system to further check on addicted inmates is warranted.

Fourth, the Rappaport family is looking for answers about Adam’s death. They learned about it when a friend overheard the call on an emergency radio and the family rushed to the hospital. They deserve as much information as the superintendent and sheriff can find. The jail should have procedures in place to inform families of the deaths that occur there as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Fifth, after Rappaport asphyxiated himself and was taken to the hospital, his mother, in the emergency room, was faced with deciding whether or not to take him off of life support. While making this difficult decision, she and other family members could hear the corrections officers, who had escorted Rappaport from the jail, making heroin and junkie jokes from the other side of the curtain, she said.

Such behavior is unacceptable and unconscionable.

“At all times,” said Clark, “our staff should be acting professionally. I don’t know about these conversations that were had. This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said when we told him about it on Monday.

He also said the behavior would be thoroughly investigated by the Office of Professional Standards if a complaint were lodged. We urge the family to lodge such a complaint. Or, the sheriff’s office could consider this a complaint. The matter deserves investigation. The officers, who admittedly have a difficult job, need to understand how wrong such jokes are.

That gets to the heart of the matter. It is easy for those of us without someone we love in jail or addicted to drugs to distance ourselves from the problem, maybe by making tasteless jokes or by simply ignoring the problems and pretending they don’t exist, that they don’t affect us.

But they do. Not just because we’re paying for our county jail and we’re paying for police officers to keep arresting the addicts who commit petty crimes to feed their habits.

No, because to ignore the problem weakens the fabric of our society. Maryanne Rappaport has the courage to speak about her son and how he died. Here was a child, like any of ours, who was well loved, who was gifted.

He took a wrong turn. A spleen injury led him to take pain medication, which became addictive. When that became hard to get, he turned to heroin.

Looking back, his mother wishes the law had not been so lenient. Would his life have been different if he had been labeled a person in need of supervision as a teen? Would it have been better if he were put on probation after coming out of rehab? Would it have improved if insurance allowed for more long-term help?

Each person, of course, is ultimately responsible for the decisions he makes. But what help could society offer to make the right choices easier? That is the question we all need to answer.

Clark is frustrated to watch addicts treated in his jail on methadone leave only to return again. The cycle goes on and we need to break it.

Prisons in New York State and across the nation have made huge strides in the last two decades by recognizing suicides as a problem and putting procedures in place to reduce them. But, as the superintendent told us, “There’s always ways to improve…” We can do better, all of us. We have to.

We keep thinking of a doodle Mrs. Rappaport showed us. It was among the personal effects of Adam she picked up from the jail after he died. On prison stationary, most of which was blank, he had lightly penciled in one corner a six-point star and next to it, in small capital letters, the word “hope.” Only this and nothing more.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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