Jail addictions program gains federal attention


HAGERSTOWN -- Federal and state officials visited jail yesterday to learn more about an inmate alcohol and drug treatment program that is saving Washington County about $850,000 a year in prison costs.

Washington County's Jail Substance Abuse Program saves the money by reducing the time participating inmates spend behind bars. Those prisoners spend about half as much time in jail as other inmates because they are released on probation, home detention or work-release after completing the program.

The 5-year-old program -- which treats 24 prisoners at a time -- also has significantly reduced recidivism among participants, program director Charlie Messmer told his high-level visitors. A recent study showed that 66 percent of the jail's prisoners who did not go through the program are eventually arrested again, compared with 22 percent for those who did go through it.

"It's much cheaper than continuing to build jails and prisons," Mr. Messmer said to the group, which included a Clinton administration representative involved in Capitol Hill's GOP-fostered budget battles. "The jail and prison industry is bankrupting a lot of states."

Robert E. Litan, an associate director in the federal Office of Management and Budget, said the federal government is particularly interested in the effectiveness of Washington County's program because Congress is looking at cutting substance-abuse programs. The federal government, he said, has paid for similar programs across the country.

"It's important for us to see things that are working and then take our case back to the American people," he said. "Congress is in the process of looking at programs like this to cut. The administration is against that and supports drug treatment programs."

Similarly, state officials are taking a close look at the program to see whether jail-based programs can be replicated. Some Maryland counties have already begun similar treatment programs.

Addicted prisoners undergo six weeks of structured treatment in a minimum-security facility. Treatment includes education, counseling and life-skills courses. Once released, prisoners participate in "Aftercare," a program that helps them make the transition to the outside world and requires them to attend regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"This is the finest program of its type in the state," said Terry Walsh Roberts, executive director of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

Yesterday's two-hour tour included testimony from two inmates who completed the program and have remained off drugs and alcohol.

"It was a lifesaver for me," said Pat, as he was identified, a former cocaine addict who is in his 40s and now working for a lumber yard outside of Hagerstown. "Had I gone out on the streets without treatment, I don't think my chances of recovery would have been as good. It's kept me focused on how I need to think."

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