Program aims to wean inmates from drugs
Officials: New initiative already paying dividends
Tears of relief recently ran down one participant’s face as he entered a new program aimed at getting troubled drug offenders into treatment.
The new initiative is less than two months old, but already it is paying dividends, according to those running it.
Of the seven people who started the Medication Assisted Treatment Induction Program for Denver probationers, four remain enrolled. The program aims to identify troubled probationers who aren’t complying with requirements that they remain drug free. It gives them the option of receiving methadone treatment while in jail. Then they are handed off to an outpatient treatment program upon their release from custody.
“We’re giving them a warm hand-off from the jail to a methadone clinic, and giving them wraparound services and letting them know we’re here to support them and remove the roadblocks so they can be successful,” said Denver probation supervisor Scott Prendergast.
Getting the program up and running was a two-year process that involved collaboration between the Denver Sheriff Department, Denver Human Services, Denver Health, Denver Adult Probation, Denver District Court and the University of Colorado. The inspiration for the program came from a criminal justice forum Prendergast and Denver District Court Chief Judge Michael Martinez attended that included a presentation on a treatment program for opioid-addicted inmates at Rikers Island jail in New York City.
Every Wednesday, a representative from the public defender’s office, the Denver district attorney’s office, a drug court magistrate, a probation official, a drug court coordinator and a treatment professional meet to go over probation cases that would make a good fit for treatment. So far, one individual a week has qualified.
These are cases in which the individual would have been in danger of a probation revocation, which could have resulted in an 18-month jail sentence, or a
release back to the streets.
Instead, those selected for the program get a short-term jail stint. Participants are sent to the Correctional Care Medical Facility, a secure inpatient clinic inside Denver Health Medical Center, where they are assessed and, if appropriate, given a dose of methadone. They are returned to Denver’s Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center for the weekend and receive two other doses.
Then, upon release from the jail, they are driven, accompanied by a coordinator, to the offices of Addiction Research and Treatment Services, a clinical program of CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus, where they are enrolled in an outpatient methadone treatment program.
Their cases are monitored by a probation officer and a magistrate, who has the hammer of revoking their probation and sending them to jail for noncompliance, Prendergast said. The probation officer also works on finding housing, mental health services, job assistance and other services the participant may need to remain free of drugs.
For now, one person a week is being enrolled, but there are hopes for more capacity as the program continues to develop, Prendergast said.
The program is somewhat of a departure for a jail. Historically, jails throughout the nation have been reluctant to offer methadone treatment, in part because there is a fear it will switch an addict to a new dependence and also because of fears methadone could become valuable contraband. But the need for methadone is embraced at the Denver jail system, where Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman believes it will prepare some for success.
“This program is unique because it starts drug users on methadone while they are in the care and custody of the Sheriff Department, meaning they have a greater chance of successfully treating their addiction and getting off heroin,” Firman said in a prepared statement.
Angela Bonaguidi, director of adult outpatient services at CU’s Addiction Research and Treatment Services, said it’s crucial to get those leaving the jail patched into outpatient services quickly. One landmark study found that those released from incarceration have nearly 13 times the normal risk of death in the first two weeks of their release, she said.
She added that studies show those who embark on methadone treatment have a greater chance of defeating their addictions.
“Our first candidate in the program presented to the clinic with tears of happiness at being given an opportunity,” Bonaguidi said. “Those participating aren’t just being released. They are being given opportunity to see if medication is the right course for them.”