The war metaphor is commonly used to describe our public policy confrontation of the substance abuse epidemic that is unquestionably the most important and imperative public policy challenge of our time.
Our societal attempts to address the death and destruction wrought by drug and alcohol abuse are often characterized as the “War on Drugs,” or the “Battle against Addiction.” Those descriptions are correct in their metaphorical value, as this is a literal fight for survival, with citizens of all ages, races, creeds, and socioeconomic status dying daily. Addiction and its horrific impacts on our community, our society, and our families are indeed a war; it is a war that we must win.
Locally, several field generals and soldiers are waging this war daily here in our community. From retired General (literally, he’s a general) Don Quenneville, who hung up his flight suit and donates countless hours as chairman of the board for Gosnold on Cape Cod, overseeing addiction treatment and recovery coaching; to Bill Dougherty, whose nonprofit agency, Recovery Without Walls, provides a path to employment, housing, and a sense of purpose for women in recovery; to friends and loved ones who carry the heroin antidote Narcan with them and have helped save dozens of lives in the last year, our community is fighting—together—to win each day’s battle in this overall guerre with the highest of stakes.
Another prominent—if perhaps unheralded—general in the battle against addiction in our community is a person who is dedicating time, resources, and his own efforts to reverse the daunting trends: Sheriff Jim Cummings. I caught up with the sheriff and longtime Falmouthite at his office this week and was able to gain an understanding of the efforts he has brought to the Barnstable County Correctional Facility in an attempt to address addiction among the inmates, a problem for more than 80 percent of those who are housed there.
Sheriff Cummings has embraced a host of approaches—some that are on the cutting edge of corrections—to not only reduce abuse among his inmates, but to help them transition back into productive lives once they leave the structure and protection of being in jail. “I see the same people, the same good people,” noted the former state trooper, who has seen his share of bad guys in a long and distinguished career. He explained and we discussed that, after taking office in 1999, the alarming statistic of more than three-quarters of his inmates with identified substance abuse problems caused the sheriff to seek alternatives to simply caging inmates, then releasing angry, addicted men and women back to the streets of Falmouth and Cape Cod.
One of the tools the sheriff uses, and one that is gaining him national recognition, is the use of the drug Vivitrol with inmates. A non-narcotic drug that reduces cravings for opiates and alcohol, Vivitrol has proven effective, while not being addictive, in reducing substance abuse among inmates. The manufacturer, Alkermes, Inc., even provided the sheriff with 50 free doses to pilot a program at the jail.
The program, initiated and supported by state Representative Randy Hunt, was borne of the fact that nearly half of the inmates who were being processed into the correctional facility admitted a problem with opiates. This program allows the department to be a “drug dealer in reverse,” said our affable sheriff, noting his personal commitment to helping people, some of whom he’s known for decades, get a second, or third chance at life. “I see people with a name I recognize and think they’re too old to be coming back here; then I realize that it’s a son or grandson of someone I know,” he noted, highlighting the generational, and genetic, challenges of substance abuse.
The sheriff’s Vivitrol program has gained recognition nationwide. He just returned from a national conference in Florida discussing his efforts.
He also actively supports a program that provides a defined curriculum and rigid guidelines for inmates interested in comprehensive treatment. Called RSAT (residential substance abuse treatment) this program has seen amazing success, reducing recidivism by more than 40 percent for its participants, and has been recognized by the Department of Justice. The program, coupled with pathways to health insurance, jobs, and post-incarceration counseling and support, is producing appreciable—and amazing—results. A video has been posted on the sheriff’s website, www.bsheriff.net, that powerfully demonstrates the value of this important initiative.
Of course, the naysayers, particularly in today’s society where respectful public discourse is becoming rarer by the tweet, blog, and post, scoff at the costs of providing this level of treatment to prisoners. The sheriff rightfully points out that the cost to house an inmate for a year is about $50,000, so funds dedicated to reducing return visits is money well spent.
Jim Cummings has room for nearly 600 prisoners. Today’s population hovers just over 400. A little more than 100 of them are involved in the Vivitrol program, and 70 are enrolled in RSAT. Jim Cummings, the sheriff, is working hard on the front lines of the battle against addiction to bring victory for his inmates. Jim Cummings, the Falmouth resident and member of the human race, is fighting hard to bring victory for us all. We owe him a debt of gratitude for both