Program has inmates kicking their addictions

February 16, 1997


Staff Writer

Pat H. was serving a 10-year prison sentence for cocaine possession in January 1995 when he got permission to enter a six-week program at the Washington County Detention Center.

For the 49-year-old county native, the treatment offered what was perhaps his last chance. A 17-year drug addict, he had quit once, only to return to the habit a year later at three times the rate.

When he enrolled in the Jail Substance Abuse Program, he said he was confident he could kick the habit - felt too confident, in fact.


Pat H., who did not want to give his full name, said the program and the yearlong after-care sessions saved his life.

"If it wasn't for the volunteers coming up there, I'd probably still cling to the belief that I could do it on my own," he said. "If it wouldn't have been for JSAP and after-care, that seed wouldn't have been planted."

Pat H. now leads a 12-step help group. He is one of hundreds of inmates to successfully complete the state's program.

The challenge before state and county officials is how to adapt the program - the first of its kind in Maryland - amid an increasingly difficult-to-help pool of addicts.

Despite those obstacles, JSAP remains a national model in its eighth year.

Groups ranging from President Clinton's Drug Task Force to state officials from as far away as Hawaii still make yearly pilgrimages to learn what makes the program work.

Getting results

In its first few years, JSAP compiled "amazing statistics," said Sheriff Charles F. Mades, whose detention center houses the program.

Only 26 percent of the inmates who entered the program during its first three years returned to the criminal justice system, said its director, Charles R. Messmer.

That figure has dropped somewhat - to 33 percent of everyone who has entered JSAP - but officials said the success rate still stands well above the national average.

Messmer said it is difficult to know how much more successful the JSAP program is because programs across the country may target very different populations.

He said the national rate of recidivism among prisoners jailed on drug-related charges consistently hovers between 70 and 80 percent.

A three-year University of Maryland study that compared 120 drug offenders in JSAP to 90 county inmates who did not enter the program found JSAP graduates nearly three times more likely to succeed.

"I don't think it's an alarming drop," Mades said of the decreased success rate. "The program does work."

Robert May, who has organized trips to the program on behalf of numerous groups, said it works better than most.

"I think it's one of the best I've seen," said May, former executive director of Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities. "I think (Messmer's) statistics are some of the best."

Modest beginnings

When Mades became sheriff in 1986, the prison population was beginning to explode with drug-related offenders, he said.

About half of the facility's nearly 200 inmates were jailed for drug-related offenses, he said. Today, that percentage has jumped to 66 percent, and the total population has swelled to 360.

Mades said he decided early in his tenure that an in-house drug treatment facility could help slow the tide. Weeks after a three-day seminar in Baltimore, officials launched the first session. The meetings were held in the jail's gymnasium with counselors operating out of a converted weight room.

A 700-bed wing, which opened in 1993, allows drug counselors to work with inmates in a controlled environment without the distractions of the rest of the jail, Messmer said. Messmer said that separation is one of the major reasons the program has worked so well.

Another big factor in JSAP's success, Messmer said, is the cooperation it enjoys from officials throughout the county - including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, public defenders.

Messmer said he has seen squabbles sabotage other programs. "Most of the problems boil down to just that," he said.

May, the former TASC official, agreed. He said inmates often leap on internal divisions among guards and drug counselors.

"They'll just drive the wedge deeper between them," he said. "While they play games, they're not getting any better."

Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long said many officials in the county have been in their jobs a long time, allowing them to sidestep turf battles.

"We've gotten to know each other - and that helps," he said.

Also JSAP has a stronger-than-usual after-care program. Released inmates are required to attend regular counseling sessions for up to nine months.

These months of sessions help cushion the recovering users who might otherwise revert back to old habits once they enter the real world.

"When they're in jail, it's a controlled environment," said Cathy Corley, an after-care counselor. "It's not reality for them."

The future

The Herald-Mail Articles