Niagara County: Sobriety behind bars

Local News

Pod one of the Niagara County Jail looks like your average housing unit; there’s guards, cells, a couple TVs, and a lot of orange. But for the 50 men serving time there, pod one is someplace special. 

“Every individual who is in this pod has agreed to voluntarily join the substance abuse treatment program while they’re incarcerated,” explained Laura Kelemen, director of the Mental Health Department for Niagara County. 

The men here have similar stories for how they got locked up. 

Attempted robbery, sale of a controlled substance, possession; whether they were high while committing a crime, or stealing to get drugs, most of them say they’re incarcerated because of their addiction to opiates. 

According to Sheriff James Voutour, this is different than anything Niagara county has ever done before. 

“It’s killing our kids, the drug addictions,” he told News 4. 

It costs the county around $105 per day to house an inmate at the Niagara County Jail. 

Voutour said he’s sick of seeing the same people cycle through these walls; that’s why the county applied for a federal grant to launch this program, which is also available to female inmates. 

“I’m certainly not a soft sheriff, but I don’t want to house these guys again, it cost me a lot of money to house these guys,” said Voutour. 

“If I can get them some type of treatment while they’re here, while they’re literally and figuratively a captive audience, then that saves the tax payers a lot of money as well.”

It turns out, not that many other counties tapped into the federal money available, so Niagara County got  more than they had hoped for to fund this two year pilot program; $280,000 to Best Self Behavioral Health.

The federal money is dispersed by New York state, and pays for in-house group and one on one counseling sessions five days a week. 

“We wake up, group starts at about 9, we run group between an hour, an hour and a half. After that, maybe play some cards,” said Ian Power, an inmate in the program. 

“They usually try to get a one on one with every person that’s in the program but there’s only three people working the program for 40 guys so it’s hard. But they do the best they can I know that,” he said. 

The inmates support each other too. 

“We’re like a little band of brothers,” said Collin Thompson. 

Each day clean is another small victory, another promise of not returning to jail. 

“We all get along fairly well because we all have the common addiction thing, so we can relate to each other in that way,” he said. 

But these men reported the biggest impact of the program is peer specialists. 

“A peer specialist is someone who really has been down that road, has been addicted themselves , has entered recovery and has gained some stability in their recovery,” Kelemen said. 

Inmate Frank D’Angelo said peer specialists offer advice inmates feel they can trust. 

“They lived the same type of life style so it’s a lot easier to take advice from someone who’s been in the place you have and can show you what they did and how they go to where they’re at.”

Once defendants leave jail, they’re connected ot long help on the outside as well through either Best Self or Northpointe. 

The grant also funds access to Vivitrol, a drug that can help block cravings for opiates. 

Eligible inmates, like Ian Power, get that injection upon leaving jail. 

“So the goal of most people coming into this program is to learn skills to become sober when they leave here,” Kelemen told News 4.

Deputy Chief Daniel Engert said this program has forced his staff to look at addiction and recovery differently. 

But there are still rules, chief among them staying clean. 

If you try or successfully get drugs into the jail, you’re out. 

“We look at it as an opportunity to give them a chance, but you know if they violate that three times they’re out of the program. But it’s actually been tremendously successful so far.”

New York’s division of Criminal Justice Services found that addiction services can save jails $2,170 per inmate every year, by cutting down the services they wouldn’t need if they were sober. 

Niagara County is following Rikers island, Albany and Monroe counties by launching this sort of program; The numbers aren’t in for Niagara County yet, but measured drop in recidivism rates elsewhere is encouraging. 

Rikers Island saw a 14% drop in recidivism, Albany County reported a drop of 28%, and Monroe county saw recidivism dip by 50%. 

Kelemen said numbers for Niagara County will be compared at the six month and the year mark. 

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