'The wrongness of it': Drug rehab lacking in local jails, where it's needed

MOORHEAD, Minn. --After hours of heavy boozing, Shane Curtis was struggling to steady himself outside Anchorage Recovery, a drug rehab center in downtown Moorhead.

Shane Curtis speaks with the Forum at Clay County Jail on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Wanting to get mental and drug treatment, Curtis pulled a gun at a drug treatment center and was arrested after being caught on video.Matt Hellman / The Forum
Shane Curtis speaks with the Forum at Clay County Jail on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Wanting to get mental and drug treatment, Curtis pulled a gun at a drug treatment center and was arrested after being caught on video.Matt Hellman / Forum News Service

MOORHEAD, Minn. -After hours of heavy boozing, Shane Curtis was struggling to steady himself outside Anchorage Recovery, a drug rehab center in downtown Moorhead.

It was 1 a.m. on a Friday, and Curtis had come looking for a bed at the center where, he says, he hoped to get treatment for his meth problem alongside his girlfriend who was there fighting the same addiction.

When a center employee turned Curtis away, the 26-year-old pulled out a pellet gun that looked like a real pistol and asked, "How about now?" according to court documents.

Predictably, this approach failed. The employee retreated, and Curtis fled but was quickly arrested and booked into the Clay County Jail.

Unable to post $75,000 in bail, he's been behind bars for more than a month on felony charges. As his case grinds through the court system, he says he wishes he could be spending his days getting treatment for his addiction.


But that's not possible because, like most jails in the region, the Clay County Jail doesn't have a drug and alcohol treatment program for inmates.

"To provide intense therapy that may be required for treatment, the jail doesn't have that kind of funding," said Jail Administrator Julie Savat.

A handful of county jails in Minnesota and several around the country have overcome this hurdle and are offering treatment in hopes of stemming the ruinous cycle of addiction and drug-related crime.

One of them is the Renville County Jail in Olivia, Minn., about 100 miles west of Minneapolis. It's had an in-jail treatment program since 2008 and has seen a subsequent drop in recidivism, Jail Administrator Ned Wohlman said.

"The success that we have had is rock solid, and we're absolutely convinced that we're doing the right thing," he said. "If they're going to sit in jail pretrial, why not give them some help?"

Wohlman said his predecessor, whose son had a drug problem, fought hard to create the program.

"You can become very passionate about this when you have, you know, either lived it or lived with it," said Wohlman, who grew up with an alcoholic father. "You don't want to see families destroyed."

New Beginnings Minnesota, a private treatment provider, staffs and manages the treatment program, using the jail's meeting rooms and offices. When it comes to paying for treatment, the money goes to New Beginnings, not the jail, Wohlman said.


Some inmates have health insurance that covers the cost of treatment, but treatment is usually paid for by taxpayers through the social services department of an inmate's home county, he said, adding that this payment scheme only works for Minnesota residents.

Wohlman said the biggest obstacle to starting the jail's treatment program wasn't funding, but rather selling it to all the parties involved, namely judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jail staff and social services officials.

"It takes buy-in from a lot of different folks," he said.

A time to intervene

With a shaved head and a rosary around his neck, Curtis sat on the inmate side of a clear plastic window, speaking into a cracked handset as he told the story of that morning.

He remembers only some of what happened, and he regrets all of it. He said he knows it was stupid to pull a pellet gun at the treatment center.

"I don't even know why I did that. I'm thinking it was clearly alcohol," he said. "I should have just stayed at home."

Curtis said he's worked as a roofer for the past six years. But when he was arrested in late May, he was unemployed and homeless, living out of a tent in his grandpa's backyard in West Fargo.


He said he'd been using meth for about two years - his cheeks had become sunken, his thoughts paranoid, his mood angry. "Addiction is like being on a leash to a master," he said.

Curtis' father, Danial, said his son has been crying out for help for a long time and that his cries won't be answered in jail. "He's going to sit there for two to three months at the taxpayer's expense and not get any help," his father said. "That's the wrongness of it."

Shane Curtis said that whether or not he's court-ordered to receive treatment, he plans to seek it once he's released. "I'm serious about treatment," he said. "I'm going to do it to better myself."

Court records show that Curtis has a series of misdemeanor convictions on his criminal record, many of them drug-related offenses. He acknowledged that, along with drug use, "drinking is a big problem in my life."

In jail, he's been attending weekly Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Experts say such peer-support groups are a critical part of the recovery process, but they're no substitute for intensive treatment.

"Peer-based programs have not been shown to be effective on their own, for the most part," said Roger Peters, a professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida.

Peters has seen firsthand how in-jail substance abuse treatment can change inmates' lives. He was the first director of a treatment program in the Hillsborough County jail system in Tampa, Fla.

Peters said the program, which started in 1986, served as a national model and now many jails, particularly major metropolitan ones, offer treatment to inmates.

"We think about jail as kind of a crisis in somebody's life. And we can think about it as an opportune time to intervene" and engage people in treatment, he said, especially those who didn't believe they had a drug or alcohol problem.

A study from 1988 to 1991 showed that Hillsborough County inmates who participated in the six-week program experienced fewer arrests and served less jail time in the year after they were released, compared to a group of untreated inmates.

Peters said treatment in jail can be a springboard to more treatment on the outside. When this happens, inmates' outcomes are better, he said.

Treatment programs are common in state prisons, including those in Minnesota and North Dakota, where inmates are incarcerated for more than a year. Jails, however, see much more turnover. In some cases, jail inmates are in custody for a couple of hours, while others stay for months as they await trial or serve sentences of up to a year.

Both Savat and Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney cited inmate turnover as a hindrance to having treatment programs in the Cass and Clay county jails. Peters said jails can deal with this by identifying inmates who are candidates for treatment and are likely not to bail out or quickly be released.

Figuring out funding

Faced with an increase in opiate overdoses, law enforcement leaders in the Fargo-Moorhead area have lately been calling for more drug treatment options. Among them is Moorhead police Chief David Ebinger, who said treatment for jail inmates should become the norm.

"You've got to have some fundamental options for (inmates) to at least start on the path of recovery while they're being incarcerated in our local facilities," Ebinger said.

Savat said she's open to the idea of the Clay County Jail offering a treatment program, but it's not feasible right now because there's no place for treatment groups to meet. Though, that should change in the near future.

County officials plan to build a new jail with more beds and more space for inmate programming. The project, which will include a new law enforcement center, is estimated to cost more than $50 million. Construction is expected to start in spring 2017 and take about 18 months to complete.

Nationally, 64 percent of jail inmates suffer from mental illness and 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder, according to federal data.

In Clay County, Sheriff Bill Bergquist estimated that about 80 percent of the jail's inmates have substance abuse problems, mental health issues or both. His hope is that the new jail will have a designated area where these inmates can receive treatment.

Laney said he also supports treating addicts while they're doing time. "So when they come out, they don't go back to their old ways of committing crimes to feed a habit," he said.

Aside from in-jail treatment, Laney said, another option would be a secure, state-run treatment center where inmates could serve their sentences. For example, he said, a defendant could be sentenced to 18 months of treatment at the center, six months at a halfway house, followed by a term of probation.

"And that person never sees the inside of the Cass County Jail or the state penitentiary," he said.

No jails in North Dakota, including Cass County's, offer treatment to inmates.

State Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, who chairs the North Dakota Legislature's Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration, said the key to starting an in-jail treatment program would be determining who pays the bill, either the counties or the state. "There has to be a funding stream," he said.

Another question is how much funding would be required.

Peters said the annual cost of a typical in-jail program in a metropolitan area that provides two to three months of treatment to 60 inmates at a time (360 per year) is about $250,000. He said the cost would be lower for programs in smaller jurisdictions.

State Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said the interim Human Services Committee, which she chairs, has discussed in-jail treatment and considered whether the state should staff such programs with public employees or hire private providers.

Hogan noted that North Dakota's budget is tight and that making this idea a reality across the state would be expensive. But she believes not treating addicts in jail will eventually result in other public costs.

"We're going to pay for it one way or the other. All of these people are going to get some level of service," she said. "It's whether we're doing it wisely."

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