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County Jail Battles Drug Addiction

March 21, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Sheriff James Cummings and Dr. Michael Bihari

The Barnstable County Correctional Facility, which houses more than 500 prisoners, has, under the leadership of Sheriff James Cummings and Special Sheriff Jeff Perry, implemented several innovative programs to help inmates with addiction-related issues. These efforts have significantly reduced the recidivism rate among individuals who have participated in these nationally recognized programs.

The Sheriff sent me his thoughts about the prison population and his take on how we can do a better job at prevention:

I’m a drug dealer. No, I don’t distribute the stuff.  Nor even use it.  My job is altogether different.  I deal, instead, with one of drug abuse’s horrible aftershocks: Incarceration. They arrive here at the county jail in all shapes and sizes.  Young, middle age, sometimes even elderly.  Men and women.   Employed and jobless.  They are literate, semi-literate, barely literate.   They hail from both sides of the railroad tracks.   Some have no home at all.

And for those who are part of our inmate majority -- the ones enslaved by drugs or alcohol -- things seem to be getting worse.  Witness the “Drug overdoses spike across Cape Cod” headline screaming from a recent issue of the Cape Cod Times. The paper went on to say that in three bedrock Barnstable villages (Centerville, Osterville, and Marstons Mills) there were three overdoses in the first six weeks of 2013.  Bad enough until you consider that the number for 2014, same six-week period, was eight.  In Yarmouth the number of drug overdose deaths (same time frames) leaped from two to 12; in Falmouth it jumped from one to six.  Mounting opiate addiction is of particular concern.

We’ve had some success in the battle, learning just this month that our Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program has been chosen as one of six model sites, nationwide.  And our Vivitrol program, which uses that new and non-addictive drug to help overcome opiate addiction, is also in the vanguard -- earning recognition from across the country and as far away as London.

So yes, here in Barnstable County we consider the imperfect and often relapse-ridden battle to break addiction worth waging.  We’re paying plenty to house and feed inmates who don’t partake in these programs, which is to say most of them.   Those baseline costs aren’t going away, treatment or no treatment.  So while we have them, sans drugs thanks to their stay with us, why not try?

Treatment is an even sounder investment if you consider the dollars and cents saved when an addicted inmate does turn his life around.  The numbers are fewer than we’d like, but the payback to society is huge whenever it does happen. That said, I write as well with something else in mind.  It’s a far better strategy than the best “feel good” rehab story imaginable: If it’s not too late, don’t “pick up” in the first place.  For those able to walk that line, especially our children and young adults, a far more promising road beckons.

The advantage of never starting becomes increasing clear when you consider how long it takes to “lose” an addiction.  That’s because, experts agree, you never really do.  Take a former inmate whose story is hardly unique: Drug addiction dating to his days in college, clean for more than two decades, at the top of his career, overdosing in his mid 40s -- two heroin needles hanging from his arm. If this sounds both recent and hauntingly familiar, it should.  This is no inmate.  This is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, an Oscar-winning actor whose untimely death comes wrapped in cautionary tales.  If it can happen to our most accomplished, who among us is immune?  And if twenty plus years of sobriety is not enough, what is?

If you are addicted, I hope you can conquer the demons the only way that apparently works -- one day at a time.  If like me you’ve had the good fortune to live thus far in sobriety, keep at it.  If you’re a parent or grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, a teacher, a coach, an authority figure of any kind, please, hammer that message home the best way you know how. Remember back when former first lady Nancy Reagan was taking flack from critics for her “Just say No” campaign?  Overly simplistic, they sniffed.  I don’t think so.  Not for millions of young Americans who heard the message then and remain clean and sober thirty years later. 

I’m also struck by the axiom, “Do as I do.”   If your approach with youngsters and teens is to say one thing but do something else, you can shout until you’re blue in the face.  It’s not going to matter.  And it’s not going to help.  Bottom line?  Don’t tell kids how to live.  Show them how to live.

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James Cummings was elected Barnstable County Sheriff just over fifteen years ago and twice re-elected without opposition.  Prior to that he was a State Police lieutenant, working for most of those years as a detective in the Cape and Island’s district attorney’s office.

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