COLONIE — “There is a common theme down here, if you don’t drink or use drugs, you won’t end up in jail,” said Mike, an inmate as he sat in the bowels of the Albany County jail.
On paper, it’s a simple solution. In practice, though, the dozen men in the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program are examples of how hard it is to accomplish.
Mike and others, during a wide-ranging, group session-type interview in the SHARP unit, said they have been in and out of jail for years, doing time for minor offenses like petit larceny, DWI, probation violation and possession of narcotics. Some crimes were committed to feed their addictions – that is, they said, at the root of everything and where the downward spiral starts – and others were, to some degree, related to drug use.
The stories are like a skipping record: Go on a binge that can last months, get arrested, do a few months in jail, get out of jail, maybe stay clean for a little while, go on a binge, get arrested …
But, this time, rather than sit in a cell and waste six or eight or 10 months, the men in the SHARP unit are using the time to prepare for life on the outside, and that all starts, they know now, with recovery from addiction.
“This is like a pre-game,” Mike said. “You get familiar with the group settings and how things go in meetings and you open up a little bit about yourself. In jail, you never get to work on things like that. You always deal with all the nonsense that goes on in jail like fights and drugs and smoking. Down here, you are with a group of guys trying to get to the same goal and that goal is to break the cycle.”
Sheriff Craig Apple started SHARP in 2015 in a underutilized wing in the bowels of the jail to give inmates a chance at treatment while they pay their debt to society. They are in jail anyway, so it gives new meaning to the phrase “captive audience.”
But, the program is voluntary and the men who sign up do not get any time off their sentence, they live in a bunk-house type setting with far less privacy than the general population, they share one bathroom and are often mocked by “tough” inmates in general population.
There are no advantages to being an inmate being in SHARP outside of getting help to beat their addictions.
Apple reached out to the Addiction Care Center, who with some creative financing provided the initial counselors, and now the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services kicks in some money and more money is expected from state politicians.
Other jails across the country are following suit, and law enforcement from as far away as England have come to check out the program that does not directly cost Albany County taxpayers any additional money because the wing was already there and the staff would be guarding the inmates anyway.
“There are bad people out there doing horrific things and they will get theirs,” Apple said. “They are not what this program is about. This program is about the people doing nuisance crimes and committing small offenses and if they get out of jail without help they will do it again and it costs taxpayers and society millions of dollars every year. This is a way to break that cycle.
“And it’s working. Lives are being changed in that unit.”
Sixty-one of the 81 people who were released from SHARP into treatment are still in treatment. Thirty-four have been in treatment for more than seven months. The recidivism rate for SHARP inmates is about 12.6 percent, Apple said, compared to a rate of 75 percent for drug addicts who don’t get any treatment.
Joan Wennstrom, a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor who screens inmates for SHARP and works with them once they are enrolled, called it a “restorative approach” to criminal justice with the goal of restoring a sense of personal responsibility. Ultimately, she said, recovery is up to the individual and SHARP helps inmates find their way through a litany of barriers to that end.
“There is more responsibility on them to succeed than on any structure,” she said.
While SHARP is not a 12-step program, the inmates hold their own Narcotics Anonymous meetings and support each other, not just with the addiction, but with other problems and issues that come with being incarcerated. That support, and helping each other deal with being in jail and staying away from that first hit or drink, is a fundamental cornerstone of successful, long-term recovery.
“I spent years and years beating myself up to come to this point in my life where I realize I can’t do it by myself,” said an inmate named Orlando. “The SHARP program, and being around other people who are fighting the same addiction you are fighting is crucial. I’ve tried to do this on my own and can’t. It’s the old way of thinking that causes me to keep using.”
The program has been so successful for the male inmates, the sheriff is planning on opening a women’s version in the coming weeks.
The cost of addiction
According to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million Americans battle a form of substance abuse. Drug abuse and addiction cost our society about $200 billion in healthcare, criminal justice, legal and lost workplace production according to the Office on National Drug Control Policy.
According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, it costs federal, state and local governments $80 billion a year to incarcerate criminals. In this state, it’s about $66,000 per year to keep a person locked up in a state or county facility.
A study by Washington University in St. Louis, suggests that national number jumps to $1 trillion when societal costs like broken families, employment issues and the cost of social service programs are factored in.
The ONDCP found half of all those incarcerated are drug addicts or alcoholics.
What makes an addict is an ongoing debate. Is it a disease, as defined by the American Medical Association or is it the result of bad choices that eventually leads to a physical addiction? In the end, most agree, the argument is moot. The cycle of active addiction and the costs associated with drug and alcohol abuse is black and white.
Breaking the cycle
“I’ve been in and out of jail since 1995. I’ve heard about this program before but this time around I’m coming to terms with drugs,” said an inmate named Nathan. “I’ve been in recovery before, and I figured this time around I would participate and I would have some clean time when I get out instead of just jail time.”
In a very real sense, the program is rehabilitative rather than punitive, which is especially important given the fact the inmates will spend at most a year in county jail before being released back into society.
“We can have them return after just having done jail time, or we can return them with a sense of purpose, or renewed sense of purpose, and address those areas of deficiency that got them involved in the criminal justice system and subsequently incarcerated,” said Theron Rockwell, director of programs for the Albany County Jail.
“We are re-training them to be people,” said Kerry Thompson, chief deputy at the Albany County Jail.
The desire to break the cycle was a common, passionate theme among the inmates as they sat in a semi-circle dressed in orange hospital-type pants and gray SHARP T-shirts. That is what the program, and how it is structured, is designed to do as it prepares them for a clean and sober life on the outside.
“People say jail is an end but here, in this program, jail is a beginning,” Mike said. “It makes things easier when you come out of jail. Life can hit you fast with bills and family and other things coming at you. Without recovery you are not going to be good at any of those things.
“Here, we are safe. There are no drugs and no booze. We are safe in here. But out there, and with our free will, we can do what we want and that’s when the real test begins.”
Photos by Jim Franco