In-jail drug program gives inmates tools to succeed

Jun. 27, 2013 @ 06:46 PM

Inmates who complete a drug treatment program in the Durham County Jail leave with tools to succeed, according to an official who helps oversee the effort.

Peter Baker, assistant director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center over jail and court services, said 437 Durham County Jail inmates participated in the STARR program last year – a cooperative effort between the center and Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

Baker spoke Thursday at a luncheon of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

The program, started in 1990, aims to educate inmates about the perils of drug abuse and prepare them for life outside.

“We’re trying to prepare people for the real world once they leave,” Baker said. “These are people who are in jail because of drug convictions, but also other crimes that involved drugs.”

Durham is one of the few North Carolina counties with a similar in-jail drug program, which includes classrooms and office space for learning and counseling by trained therapists.

One of the top goals is to cut the number of inmates who return to jail. The jury is still out on whether the program does that, but Baker said the plan is to analyze data from recent years to answer that question.

There is anecdotal evidence that the program works, he said, citing cases where inmates who graduate from the program return to jail less often – or not at all – and function well in society.

Baker cautioned, however, that recovering from drug addiction is a steep hill.

But he believes the program, funded by the Durham County Commissioners, arms inmates with the right tools.

Inmates participate either through court order or voluntarily. Volunteers often see it is a resource that would be foolish to ignore.

“They come to realize that they need to stop drug use and its consequences – loss of family, job, freedom and health,” Baker said.

The program includes four counselors trained in drug abuse and addiction, a supervisor and case manager who helps smooth inmates’ transition to the outside.

All 437 inmates who graduated from the program and left jail last year will be tracked.

“We have to wait for some time to pass to get the real feel for what is actually happening since they left,” Baker said.

He said 70 to 80 percent of inmates are in jail due to drug abuse, “so any dent that you can make in exposing them to treatment” will likely cut the risk they’ll reoffend.

Baker believes inmates with drug problems need help, but must be accountable for their offenses.

“I don’t think that lack of punishment is the answer – we need a combination of both,” he said. “From a public safety standpoint, people have to be accountable for what they’ve done. But they can be accountable and still get treatment.”

He also believes that trying to help drug abusers – many with mental health problems – is the right thing to do.

“From a moral standpoint, we don’t want to just let you out on the street,” he said. “We want to make sure you’re connected to services. So hopefully, that will increase the likelihood that you’ll stay off drugs and not return to jail.”