PLYMOUTH COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY: Sheriff's jail programs target inmates with substance abuse issues

This is the first in a series of stories exploring programs within the Plymouth County Correctional Facility that prepare inmates for release by tackling their substance abuse issues.

By Rich Harbert
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October 07. 2015 10:00AM

PLYMOUTH – In his former career as an assistant district attorney, Joseph D. McDonald Jr. saw first-hand the horrors of how drugs and alcohol can take hold of good people and twist them into criminals.

McDonald’s nine years as a prosecutor, including five years running the district attorney’s office in Plymouth District Court, proved an eye-opener, as defendants hit bottom and their families looked to the state and the court for assistance.

Now, as Plymouth County sheriff, McDonald finds himself in an even better position to help those struggling with substance abuse issues as his guests at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility.

The county jail, off Long Pond Road in Plymouth, typically houses about 1,000 to 1,100 state, federal and county inmates. In a typical year, about 7,000 men will rotate through the jail, spending an average of nine months.

When he started in the job a decade ago, McDonald had an easy answer for those wondering how many inmates were incarcerated for substance abuse issues. A check of the sentencing records would quickly determine the number convicted of possession or distribution of illegal drugs. But McDonald also quickly learned the numbers were not correct, as so many more inmates land in jail for crimes motivated by drugs and alcohol.

From burglaries to robberies, domestic disputes to random acts of violence, many of the men serving time in Plymouth have some level of substance abuse.

And McDonald finds himself uniquely positioned to make a difference in their lives, and by extension, the general public the inmates are bound to return to in such a short time.

With the help of program directors and volunteers who have dedicated their lives to helping people overcome their dependency on alcohol and drugs, the sheriff is leading an effort to rid inmates of their bad habits and train them for how to make the most of their lives after their release.

Much of the hands on work falls to Robin McGrory, director of programs within the jail.

McGrory started working with inmates as a volunteer at the old jail on Obery Street more than two decades ago and has expanded her role to oversee a variety of educational, vocational and rehabilitative programming, from the traditional AA and NA meetings to the more outside-the-box initiatives like the jail’s Peace Unit for inmates with domestic violence issues and its poetry slams.

McDonald and his staff call it trying to reach people where they’re at.

Inmates at the jail do not necessarily have to attend any of the programs. Their participation is strictly voluntary.

But incentives, like the opportunity to cut time off the end of their sentences, lead many to attend.

“A lot of the men will tell you that they came to the programs to get time off their sentences, but then they’ll say what I got was time back in my life,” McDonald said. “What they gained by doing these programs was nothing they anticipated. For the time they put in, they got more out.”

In the weeks to come, the newspaper and its readers will be guests of the sheriff for tours of three inmate programs at the jail.

The newspaper will explore the Section 35 unit, a wing dedicated to men who have not committed any crime, but who have been civilly committed to a treatment program by a judge. McDonald and his staff have opened a unit of the jail to the program as part of a pilot effort to open the program to more people.

Though the Section 35 commitments technically allow the state to treat people for up to 90 days, usually at a secure state hospital, most end up with shorter stays because there are not enough beds.

The Section 35 program at the jail is open to 60 men, living in a bunkhouse setting, segregated from the jail population. They first detox at the state hospital before beginning intensive counseling in the jail.

The newspaper will also visit the jail’s substance abuse unit, a four-month counseling program for sentenced inmates. Men in the unit shared a common history of drug or alcohol abuse and work in frequent recovery and coping programs throughout their stays.

The sheriff will also open the doors for a look at the re-entry unit, which addresses the needs of men preparing for release. The size of the program varies, depending on the population, and looks to teach basic life skills while training men how to make a successful fresh start.

Some of the sheriff’s work happens outside the jail. The newspaper will also explore an initiative to prevent drug addiction before it can take hold, a drug take-back program that collects prescription medications at police departments throughout the county and then disposes of them safely. To date, the program has incinerated tons of pills and medications that might otherwise have fallen into the wrong hands.

Finally, McDonald will share his thoughts on the future of treatment and programming. A member of the governor’s task force on substance abuse, McDonald has recently teamed with District Attorney Timothy Cruz to create the Plymouth County Substance Abuse Task Force.

McDonald said the county task force will explore fresh initiatives like helping soon-to-be-released inmates get jobs such as custodians, while circling back to see how the governor’s initiatives are working.

“It would be a shame to come up with all these great ideas and then not implement them. This is something we’re going to follow through on,” McDonald said.

Follow Rich Harbert on Twitter, @richharbertOCM.