Inmates with substance abuse issues face the highest risk of relapse, or fatal overdose, within the first few weeks of being released from incarceration. Research shows that 80 percent of former inmates with opiate dependence issues will relapse within a month of leaving jail.
But a pilot program underway in New Haven is taking a new approach to addiction treatment before an inmate leaves a correctional facility.
From basic needs like housing and income to reconnecting with family and navigating medical care, inmates face a range of challenges after being released from jail… and for addicts that can often lead back to drug use, crime, and prison.
Kevin Hill, 51, is a former officer with the Connecticut Department of Corrections.
"Been through some riots. Been through some bad times with the DOC and then became an inmate," Hill said. "I’ve been in and out since 1994, and I’ve done nothing but live under a bridge. I’ve had nothing since 1994."
Hill has battled a heroin addiction for years.
During his last sentence at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield, he learned about Living Free, a new voluntary program that integrates addiction treatment, health care, mental health, and peer mentorship.
We spoke at the program’s main clinic in New Haven with Yale psychiatry professor Sherry McKee, the director of FORDD, an outpatient addiction clinic of the Connecticut Mental Health Center. FORDD treats addiction issues in clients with criminal justice involvement.
McKee said inmates need to know that their risk for overdose is exceptionally high once they’re released.
"Because individuals have lost their tolerance," she said. "And without the education that they’ve lost their tolerance, they’re at very high risk of overdosing."
Kevin Hill seems uneasy at first telling his story, but he’s anxious to credit the program with helping him maintain his sobriety after being released.
He’ll be sober 15 months on October 7, the longest time he’s gone without using in about 20 years. He said what makes this program different is the support and time he’s been given.
"Instead of: here, you’ve got 30 days to get your life together," Hill said. "Here’s a $50 Walmart card; now move on. It’s never been successful."
The Living Free program is a partnership between the Yale School of Medicine, the Connecticut Department of Correction, and the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The aim is to treat addiction among the prison population and reduce recidivism. It’s funded by a three year, $1.2 million federal grant.
Yale’s McKee said they’ve been enrolling inmates since March. The minimum treatment time is three months -- with no maximum.
"Care is completely individualized for the client, so we might keep somebody for even up to a year," she said. "And very often we have people who have now elected to stay longer than the minimum treatment stay."
For now, the program primarily recruits from the York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic and Willard-Cybulski. There are plans to expand to a third.
To qualify, inmates with addiction problems must be imprisoned for a minimum of three months and be returning to the New Haven area when they’re released.
Lindsay Oberleitner, associate research scientist at Yale, works directly with the DOC to recruit eligible inmates. Once they're released, the program maintains very close contact.
"Our community advocates are meeting them to get them on the medication they need," Oberleitner said. "Meeting them at a housing agency to help them coordinate that. Some people are having every single day contact as they get out, if their needs are high."
Community advocates like Jerry Smart are a big part of the program. They understand the struggles.
"I know, because I’ve been incarcerated," Smart said. "Your number one goal is that you want to be successful. I want to get out. I want to be a part of my kids' lives. I want to get a job. That’s the dream right there. The hard part is when you come back into society and everything starts moving in slow motion. You know, everything is not instant. Everything is a process."
Mary Ellen, 52, agrees. (She requested we not use her last name.) She’s a college-educated mother of three who ran a family business. But anxiety, depression, and alcoholism led to prison time at the York Correctional Institution. She’s in the Living Free program now and has three solid months of sobriety -- the longest she’s been sober in years.
"Here I met with their psychiatrist," she said. "He asked me questions that I’ve never been asked before. But that’s because he took the time to know Mary Ellen. [But] in rehab, I don’t know if it’s time; I don’t know if it’s money; but they don’t do that. And again, I’m not proud, but I’ve been to multiple rehabs."
Living Free facilitators have said their program could be more cost-effective. According to their research and data, a client can be treated for around $4,000, while it costs the state of Connecticut about $52,000 a year to keep an inmate behind bars.
WNPR’s Opioid Addiction Crisis Reporting Initiative is supported by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network’s MATCH Program.