Inmates serving time have new tools to turn to in fighting substance abuse

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At the newer Pierce County jail located at Ninth Street and Yakima Avenue, low-offender and low-risk inmates on good behavior are now gaining the tools they need to manage their substance addiction, a battle they will continue to fight once back out in society.

In September, a partnership between the nonprofit Pierce County Alliance and the Corrections Bureau of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department launched a five- to six-week voluntary substance abuse treatment program. The weekly classes are administered by Pierce County Alliance staff. So far since January, when the Alliance started to collect data on the program, roughly 40 inmates have successfully completed the program.

“They get certified, but they also understand that this does not rescind them from serving additional sentencing from the judge,” said Sergeant George Wasson, the jail program coordinator.

Wasson is assisted by Jennifer Gaitner, a staff person at the Alliance. Inmates who are interested in enrolling in the program typically contact Gaitner or Wasson. When checking for eligibility, Wasson considers an inmate’s release date and their classification level. If their classification level is that they’re serving time in the newer jail and they are a lower-risk inmate, then they qualify. All participants must reside in the newer jail.

“If they’re in jail for three to four weeks and if I think they can get something out of the class then we will send them for screening at Pierce County Alliance,” Wasson explained.

The idea for the program came about from collaboration between Terree Schmidt-Whelan, the executive director of the Alliance, and Patti Jackson, corrections bureau chief with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

“(Patti Jackson) and I talked about it and found a way to do it at the jail,” Schmidt-Whelan said. “We were able to have counselors from (the Alliance) go down to the jail to administer treatment. For the length of time that they’re at the jail inmates can come in and out of the program.”

Wasson also said if inmates are released from jail before completing the program, they’re able to visit the Alliance to continue and complete the program.

“I’m impressed with the amount of growth I’ve seen from when they start to when they complete,” Wasson said. “I’ve definitely seen some maturation.”

Last March, Schmidt-Whelan and Jackson partnered to provide the program initially to the population of inmates who are in drug court, but for whatever reason, find themselves back in jail to serve a court-ordered sanction. Reaching this group of inmates, and also the general population, which started in September, provides the opportunity to reach everyone who desires an avenue for treatment.

“There are many, many inmates who want treatment while they’re here,” Schmidt-Whelan said. “Those in jail receiving treatment have been very receptive to treatment and it’s gone very well. They’re more likely to continue outside of jail and have a referral to continue treatment at Pierce County Alliance right away.”

Jackson said the arrangement between the Alliance and the county is a win-win. For example, state and federal funding is in short supply to help in this capacity. Jackson said the Alliance is able to leverage its funding to provide these services to the county. In turn, the county is able to provide a baseline of coping skills to a swath of the population fighting substance abuse that desperately need it.

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