Cumberland County sheriff: State funding for jail drug abuse treatment isn't enough

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PORTLAND — Last month, the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage found uncommon ground in support for a two-year, $3.9 million spending plan to combat opioid use.

Yet while volunteers will set up new 12-step programs for prisoners at the Cumberland County Jail, Sheriff Kevin Joyce doubts the state spending will provide much help for prisoners.

“Fifty thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket statewide,” Joyce said recently. “I don’t think I could do a whole lot if I got the full amount.”

LD 1537, signed into law by LePage hours after it was unanimously approved by the Legislature, allocates $50,000 “for grants to local law enforcement entities and county jails for the establishment of projects designed to facilitate pathways to treatment, recovery and support services through law enforcement initiatives.”

Treating and counseling prisoners beyond helping them through withdrawal is already a challenge because they are held an average of only 27 days. Of about 450 prisoners at the jail, two-thirds were awaiting trial or sentencing, Joyce said.

Typically, those in the jail who have been sentenced are serving a year or less. Joyce said the jail has contracted with the state Department of Corrections to house inmates from state prisons, but is not doing that lately.

Prisoners just released from jails can be especially vulnerable to return to substance abuse, according to recovery advocates Julia Whyel and Lynn Avigo.

Whyel and Avigo within the last year have been part of programs to counsel and treat local prisoners. Whyel will begin again this month with three-month, 12-step programs at the jail, one each for 12 men and women.

“What I want people to know is, there is recovery from addiction, it happens all the time and it is available to anybody willing to do the work,” said Whyel, who also directs special programs for a nonprofit called The Family Restored

The Family Restored provides assistance to people seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders. One woman who participated in the three-month program last year was placed in a treatment center after her release from the jail, Whyel said, and remains active in recovery.

Avigo, the clinical supervisor at Liberty Bay Recovery Center, 835 Forest Ave., led ANEW Approach, a three-month program at the jail that began in the autumn of 2014.

“(It was) really about bringing a kind of modality into the prison system that was new for inmates,” Avigo said of the intensive, nine-hour counseling and treatment sessions that encouraged prisoners to take control of their own recoveries.

It was also too expensive to continue beyond three months, Joyce said, and impractical because to be most effective, the participants needed their own pod in the jail.

“We could not house them in a separate pod because of manpower demands,” he said.

ANEW Approach tried the crowd-funding route to keep things going, but raised only about $10,000 of its $50,000 goal.

Avigo said she knew the program would be expensive, because a program she helped start in Alaska cost between $300,000 and $400,000.

Joyce, Avigo and Whyel agree prisoners who are just released are vulnerable to relapses, which could lead them back to jail or an overdose.

“I think the model I’ve seen to be most successful is sober living, working actively and immediately with a sponsor, which is really easy to do in a place like Portland,” Whyel said. “But not everybody coming out lives in Portland or has the chance to stay with somebody in Portland.”

Because it costs an average of $112 per day to house a prisoner – and many have mental health and substance abuse issues that could best be treated in other venues at a lower cost to taxpayers – Joyce said he supports more treatment and diversion programs.

The key is having the structure for treatment already in place.

“In my opinion, what is the biggest bang for the buck in your local taxes?” he said. “Let’s say we had a rehabilitation hospital in Portland with 20 beds. I’m sure I could cull out 20 prisoners who are here because of their drug problems.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce says $50,000 for jail drug treatment programs is not enough.

Julia Whyel of The Family Restored is helping set up two, 12-step programs for prisoners at the Cumberland County Jail this month.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce says jail prisoners aren’t held long enough to provide adequate substance abuse counseling and treatment.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.