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Fmr. Duval County Jail Director: Inmate Overdoses Not ‘Extremely Common’

Tara Wildes
Bruce Lipsky
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Listen to the story airing on 89.9 WJCT-FM

A few days after three women overdosed in the Duval County jail, the facility’s former director Tara Wildes is calling the incident not an “extremely common” one.

“It happens every now and then and it’s not just from contraband coming in, but we would also occasionally have inmates that would horde their own medication, or share medication with other inmates, save it up and then have potential overdoses that way as well,” she said. “So, yes it can happen with contraband, but it can also happen through the regular medication.”

Wildes worked in the Duval County jail - formally known as the John E. Good Pre-trial Detention Facility - for more than 30 years. She was appointed to the post of director in 2013 by then-Sheriff John Rutherford. She retired in 2016.

The three women survived the overdoses, most likely from heroin said the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, but the investigation is ongoing. Three women were soon charged with smuggling in the contraband, although because of health privacy laws, JSO can’t confirm whether the trio is the same that was transported to UF Health Jacksonville hospital Friday.

Wildes said the jail employs a robust set of technologies and procedures to help keep contraband, which can also include weapons, cell phones and money, out of the facility. But that isn’t always enough. She said in addition to being smuggled in by incoming inmates and visitors, jail employees are some of the biggest sources of illegal materials.

“The actual culture of corrections can sometimes encourage or discourage the flow of contraband. If people are getting the programs and the treatment and the kind of things they need while they’re inmates in the facility and if the staff and personnel are paid reasonable wages for the job that they’re doing, that closes down some of those corridors because it’s not as critical to get contraband in,” she said.

County jails are usually stacked with short-term inmates, many who are awaiting trial like the three women who overdosed. Because of that fact, Wildes said it can be particularly difficult for inmates to get the kind of substance abuse or mental health treatment they need.

Inmates can get access to mental health medication they’re prescribed and jail staff is trained in crisis intervention training for emergencies, but the kind of long-term, continuing treatment most need just isn’t available, Wildes said.

Wildes is currently the President of the Jacksonville Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health. She said in many cases, non-violent inmates with substance abuse and mental health issues shouldn’t end up in the corrections system to begin with.

“You need something available, in the community, through the social service system that people can address, but if people don’t go to those kind of places and they end up in the criminal justice system … they need that individual assessment and they need to be diverted into services unless they’re a risk to public safety,” she said. “Jails should only be utilized to hold those individuals who are an absolute risk to public safety.”

Wildes said she’d like to see more state and local resources put into mental health staff assessing inmates in jail, but would also like to see more diversion programs and community services to keep people out of the corrections system altogether.

WJCT requested more information on how the three women allegedly smuggled in the drugs, but citing an open investigation, JSO is declinining comment.

"There is an active investigation into these overdose incidents, and there is no further information available at this time," JSO spokeswoman Melissa Bujeda wrote in JSO's original news release.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Ryan Benk is originally from Miami, Florida and came to Tallahassee to attend Florida State University. He worked on Miami Dade College’s Arts and Literature Magazine- Miamibiance Magazine and has published poetry and a short film called “ The Writer.” He’s currently working as the Newsroom’s Researcher while finishing his Creative Writing Bachelor’s Degree at Florida State University. When he’s not tracking down news, Ryan likes watching films, writing fiction and poetry, and exploring Florida.