Program helps inmates stay sober

LEWISBURG — Wait time is an enemy of addiction recovery and, too often, a delay of days or weeks between leaving jail and landing an open spot in a rehab program is enough to facilitate a relapse.

Union County launched a relapse prevention education program at its jail in April in an effort to help inmates stay sober upon release before beginning therapy.

Six inmates attend 90-minute sessions over eight weeks with a drug and alcohol counselor from White Deer Run in Lewisburg. The program has room for up to eight inmates each session — almost 22 percent of the 37-inmate capacity of the all-male jail. They’re referred for relapse education if substance use issues are detected upon intake.

Inmates undergo cognitive behavioral therapy, according to Roy Stickler, the White Deer Run counselor running the evidence-based program. They study stages of change, from the initial stage of not recognizing one’s addiction exists to the final stage of maintaining sobriety.

“Teaching to change the way we think and to be better able to react, deal with feelings so we’re not continuing to repeat the same behaviors,” Stickler said. “The hope is after these gentlemen finish the relapse group, they’ll get stepped into an outpatient service.”

Scott Kerstetter, Union County’s deputy chief probation officer, said the danger of relapse is heightened for inmates who have a weakened physical tolerance but inclination to use the same dose of heroin or prescription painkillers that they used before being locked up.

“Their bodies did not respond. We’ve had overdoses. I know we’ve had some deaths,” Kerstetter said.

A county jail as small as Union County’s allows for easier recall of names and faces.

Warden Doug Shaffer figures half of the men who leave after their first stretch return for at least a second. Often, drugs are involved.

“At least once, some guys twice. Obituaries?” Shaffer replied when asked about inmates who die of a fatal overdose. “Not real often but often enough we shouldn’t be reading them.”

Union County moved quickly to institute the program. It progressed from idea to implementation within the first quarter of 2018. The CMSU system funded the venture and helped set it up. CMSU oversees mental health, developmental services and drug and alcohol programs in Columbia, Montour, Snyder and Union counties.

Kerstetter hopes county judges will consider including the relapse prevention program as a sentencing condition, when appropriate, for those seeking work release.