Sheriff's rehab program helping opioid addicts get new lease on life

March 01, 2018 06:28 PM

For the past month, NewsChannel 13 has been dedicated to uncovering the effects of the opioid epidemic in the Capital Region. We've discovered where addiction begins, how early people are getting hooked and how hard it is to break the cycle.

A groundbreaking program at the Albany County Jail is turning lives around.

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It's a vicious cycle. Addicts get arrested, do time, get released – and repeat.

"You come in here for six months, you get out and never talked about the addiction and then next thing you know, the cycle has started and we have got life on the installment plan," explained Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.

A few years ago, Apple decided there had to be a better way. When addicts come in now, he's got a special place for them.

"We have a wing down here, a pod that you can actually come in here. You're in here. We've got your undivided attention. We might as well try to give you a productive life. So we have a SHARP wing, the Sheriff's Heroin Addiction Recovery Program.

Inmates who participate in SHARP are transferred to a special cell, where they stay with peers, meet with counselors and together, work through the reasons for their addictions.

"Recovery is difficult. I think it's far more difficult than just coming back and forth into jail," acknowledged Joan Wennstrom a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor.

Wennstrom has been working at the Albany County Jail for 18 years. She agrees with Sheriff Apple. When it comes to addicts, jails should do more than just house them, they should help them.

"I feel like if someone wants help, we want to at least come alongside them to offer something that can help change their life. We're not changing their lives. They have that power," pointed out Wennstrom.

What Wennstrom and her team are doing is giving these inmates the tools to change their lives. It's a chance that many feel they wouldn't have had otherwise.

"Before I got into this program, I never actually sat and thought about why I use or why I do the things that I do and ever since I came in here, I actually think about why I use and it's helped me to gain control and just hopefully be a better person," noted Asia Saglimbeni, an inmate.

"It's really for people that want to make a commitment," pointed out Wennstrom.

She admits sometimes inmates participate for the wrong reasons, but says most genuinely want help. According to Apple, the program is working. He says the recidivism rate of SHARP participants is just over 14 percent. Nationally, recidivism for drug offenses is around 77 percent.

"The bottom line is you have got to treat the addicts when they're in the jail. Otherwise, they're going to get right back out and be addicts," explained Apple.

Raymond Morales has been down that road. His addiction cost him his career as a barber and cost him his family. He's hoping the SHARP program can help make his current jail sentence his last.

"I want to be able to have a good job, a job I'm comfortable with. I would love to be there with my daughter, I mean, have my daughter in my life -- a normal life," he explained.

"If we can fix the problem in here and release a better person, everybody wins," surmised Apple.

Apple says reducing recidivism through drug treatment reduces financial strain on law enforcement, medical facilities and even area communities.

He says what the SHARP program can't do is make money grow on trees. Despite their success, Apple says funding is extremely hard to come by. SHARP has received just $25,000 in the last five years.


WNYT Staff

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