PLYMOUTH COUNTY SHERIFF: Jail is safe haven for patients in court-ordered treatment (Part 6)

By Rich Harbert
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December 18. 2015 10:00AM

This is the sixth part in our continuing series on dealing with drug issues at the county jail.


PLYMOUTH – At any given time, there are more than 1,000 men serving time at the Plymouth County Correctional Center. A small percentage of them have committed no crime whatsoever.

The men in the Section 35 unit are there by court order in a unit segregated from the general jail population, in an attempt to keep them out of jail and keep them alive.

The program, now in its fourth month, has already seen dozens of men rotate through, receiving treatment six days a week as they transition from addiction to recovery.

Kyle, a chef from Western Massachusetts, is a fairly typical client.

Kyle had a problem with drugs, but had kicked his addiction for nearly a year before he started using again earlier this year. Friends and co-workers may not have noticed the change, but when his family gathered for Thanksgiving, Kyle's weight loss was shockingly telling.

After the holiday, relatives petitioned a court in the Berkshires to intervene, and Kyle found himself in court-ordered recovery.

After a week of detox, he found himself at the doors of the county jail.

Once his anger at his family subsided, Kyle realized he was in a good place.

“It’s a small setting, peaceful and very clean,” Kyle said during a recent break in his day of treatment. “It’s a more informal setting, and you’re able to talk more, which really helps. A lot of the guys feel less stressed here. It’s relaxing.”

The dormitory unit opened in September as a part of a pilot agreement between Sheriff Joseph McDonald and the state for the care of Section 35 patients.

Under a provision of state law known as Section 35, family members, guardians, doctors and even police can petition a judge for a patient’s involuntary commitment for up to 90 days.

The men first detox at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center at the state correctional facility in Bridgewater. Many men complete their recovery in Bridgewater, but the statewide explosion of the opiate crisis has overwhelmed the center.

McDonald offered up an empty unit in the county jail for overflow in September and the beds have been filled ever since.

Susan Murphy coordinates the program at the jail for MHM, the vendor for the program at Bridgewater. She said the jail has beds for 42 patients and has housed as many as 41, but as the year closes and the holidays approach, the numbers decline.

While some families like Kyle’s recognized problems over Thanksgiving, many others are hoping to get loved ones through the Christmas season without intervention. Murphy expects to be back at full capacity in January. “Around the holidays the numbers go down, but there’s a lot of reflection after the first of the year,” she said.

The average patient is a white male, 30 or younger. The vast majority have opiate addictions, but some, especially the older patients, may be chronic alcoholics.

They stay an average of 22 days.

During that time, they spend the majority of their waking hours in treatment and support with Murphy and the three counselors who work with her.

“Believe it or not, a lot are happy to be settled. Once they get over the anger of being sectioned, they’re happy to be here and ready to get help. A lot are really open and engaged," Murphy said.

The men rise every day at 5:30 a.m. and begin their treatment program at 8:30 with morning meditations.

There are two morning and two afternoon group counseling sessions. The men receive one-on-one counseling in between and return to groups again at night.

The program runs six days a week, with sessions on overdose prevention, relapse prevention, coping with anxiety and depression, total abstinence and the like. The counseling sessions include help in finding the men places to live and work when the program superintendent determines they are ready for release.

The unit is adjacent to other cell blocks in the jail, but the patients are completely segregated from the inmate population. Whenever a patient comes or goes, or even when one of the men needs to travel within the facility for services, correctional officers clear the halls so there is no interaction between patients and inmates whatsoever.

There is no denying the obvious, that the men are locked in their units, but Kyle said most of the men are not concerned about getting their treatment in a jail.

“A jail setting in not pleasant to look at, but it’s safe,” Kyle said, noting that in early stages of recovery, when men are most vulnerable, contraband can derail the best efforts. Not so in the jail program, he said.

Most of the patients also realize their time in the jail is not long, usually just a month or two, and most are truly committed to getting to a better place, he said.

McDonald said he has gotten only positive feedback on the program and would welcome expansion, possibly to include women in a wing once designated for juvenile detainees.

But he also recognizes that some in public health circles feel a correctional facility is not the optimal place for people who are not criminals.

“I don’t disagree, but we need the answer to today’s problems right now, and in the short run, it’s a very good answer to the problem,” McDonald said.