'We're setting them up for failure'
Editor's Note: The Mail Tribune and KTVL News 10 have joined forces in investigating whether jail is needed for people dealing with addiction and mental health issues. Today: Addicts reflect on getting clean. Tuesday: Inmates are released without intervention or treatment. Wednesday: How much crime costs residents of Jackson County Tune into KTVL News 10’s 6 p.m. broadcasts for more Monday-Wednesday.
The first several times Mindy Harrison was arrested, she was taken to the Jackson County Jail, processed and released.
As long as she didn’t commit a violent crime, Harrison knew she wouldn’t be kept inside the overcrowded jail.
“Just being in and out, in and out, it just fueled this kind of game in your head of, ‘Oh, well, they can’t catch me — or even if they do, I’m going to go right back out and do the same thing.’ The consequences weren’t severe enough for me,” Harrison said.
She sank deeper into her meth and heroin addiction. Crimes that started as shoplifting escalated to a string of burglaries.
Harrison wasted away, losing more than 30 pounds from malnutrition, dehydration and exhaustion. Her face and body were covered in meth sores.
Her last arrest came as a relief.
“I was just empty. I was hollow. I was just a very scary, unhealthy shell of a person,” said Harrison, who slept for a week straight once she was lodged in jail.
After racking up felony charges, she was facing a prison sentence of up to five years. But she was offered an alternative.
Harrison entered Jackson County’s Recovery Opportunity Court program for addicted offenders and started on her path to recovery. These days, she’s working, has mended relationships with her family and gives inspirational talks to women struggling with addiction.
“That length of time I spent in jail was a game-changer for me. It was huge. And I see that now,” she said.
The Medford resident can’t help wondering if her downward spiral could have been interrupted earlier if she’d been held in jail after her first arrests.
Harrison backs a proposal for a new 800-bed jail along Highway 62 that would replace the current 315-bed jail in downtown Medford.
“I’m in full support of there being a bigger jail,” she said.
Harrison isn’t the only local resident with a criminal history who favors a larger jail.
Quinton Padilla was a football player for Phoenix High School and North Medford High School who landed a college scholarship. But after he broke a vertebra playing football, he had to give up the sport and lost his scholarship.
“Everything I’d worked for had ended,” he said. “I went into this deep depression.”
Padilla turned to alcohol, got two DUIIs in a year, lost his license for three years and started using meth and heroin. He went to a rehabilitation center but got kicked out for smoking marijuana.
“I was doing rehab for the wrong reasons — for my mom who couldn’t sleep and my brothers who looked up to me. I thought I was a piece of crap who didn’t deserve recovery,” he said. “I always had that excuse to use again. It numbed me.”
Padilla became homeless and turned to crime to fuel his addiction.
“I would go in for a new charge, and I would just get kicked from jail. Then I would get a new charge. I was hurting the people I loved. Finally I accumulated enough charges that they held me,” he said.
Padilla, who lives in Rogue River, said he turned his life around with the help of Recovery Opportunity Court and today owns his own construction business.
“I really wish I hadn’t been released,” he said of his early arrests. “I needed to be in a safe place where I couldn’t harm the community and myself. If they had held me, I could have gotten into ROC sooner, and I wouldn’t be a felon with burglary on my record that will affect me for the rest of my life.”
Building a new 800-bed jail would cost an estimated $170.9 million.
Jackson County government officials agreed to use $66 million in reserves if county voters will pay the rest through a jail service district.
If all cities participate, the cost to residents would be 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $170 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.
If Talent opts out, the cost would go up to 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $174 annually for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.
The new taxes would cover construction costs as well as the increased annual costs of operating a larger jail, estimated to start at about $15.5 million more if the jail opened in 2024.
Talent and Ashland city council members have expressed reservations about the new jail, citing the cost burden and saying the community should do more to address the root causes of crime, including addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler is making the rounds to local city councils, asking them to put a proposed jail district before voters. He hopes to get Ashland on board but has less confidence he can convince Talent to join in.
Meanwhile, he has some seemingly unlikely allies.
Former meth addict Justin Hon sits on a jail advisory committee that is exploring how the overcrowded jail is impacting the criminal justice system and community programs.
He has high praise for Sickler and Jackson County Community Justice Director Eric Guyer, who’s in charge of probation, community justice work crews, the Jackson County Transition Center and other services.
“That man has a vision for our community that I truly admire,” Hon said of the sheriff. “He doesn’t see it as locking people up and throwing away the key. He wants to rehabilitate them. It’s the same with Eric. I’m blown away by those two.”
Unable to control his addiction, Hon once cycled regularly through the Jackson County Jail, accumulating a string of charges until his probation officer made a special arrangement for him to spend nights at the transition center and his days in drug treatment at OnTrack.
Hon is now a peer mentor helping families recover from the impacts of addiction.
He said letting people out of jail while they are deep in their addiction doesn’t help them or the community.
“We’re not helping people. We’re setting them up for failure,” he said.
Hon said police officers and deputies are working hard to keep the community safe, but their hands are tied without adequate jail space to keep offenders.
More space and longer lodging times could translate into more addiction and mental health assessments, peer counseling, treatment groups, employment assistance, housing help and other services, he said.
No time to help
The lack of jail space already is threatening programs with a proven track court, including Recovery Opportunity Court.
“We know drug courts work and they lower recidivism. Individuals who are successful and graduate would almost all say they spent a long stint in jail. The reality is there isn’t enough space to hold individuals,” said Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Ravassipour, who oversees Recovery Opportunity Court.
Jail time gives defendants time to clear their heads, gain some perspective and break out of the pattern of constantly seeking and using drugs. The current catch-and-release cycle means that opportunity is lost, she said.
“They can’t stop using for any length of time,” Ravassipour said.
Keeping defendants in jail gives Jackson County Treatment Court Coordinator Lisa McCreadie a chance to meet with them, assess their needs and see if they meet the criteria for the alternative program. Recovery Opportunity Court doesn’t accept sex offenders and people who commit violent crimes.
Those who make it through the rigorous program have a new lease on life, she said.
“It’s such an amazing transformation,” McCreadie said. “The internal and external change is night and day. We see individuals who are completely broken. They didn’t have any motivation to live. They didn’t love anything about themselves. It’s great to see them as proud members of the community, paying their fines, establishing visitation or getting custody of their children, making connections to family again, working, budgeting and paying their bills.”
But Ravassipour said lack of jail space is putting the program at risk. She would like to see 90 people in the program, but instead it has 38. And 23 of those are out of custody with warrants for their arrest.
“I do think our numbers are lower because we can’t hold them,” said Ravassipour, who’s had defendants show up in court and beg to be lodged in jail.
Jail Commander Lt. Josh Aldrich said many newly lodged people panic and desperately want out of jail, but some want to stay.
“I’ve had several people tell me, ‘Don’t release me from jail. Help me get into a program that’s going to help in the community,’” Aldrich said.
New inmates are asked about their medical issues, including addiction. Those who use opioids, including heroin and prescription pain pills such as oxycodone, often face withdrawal symptoms when they lose access to drugs.
The jail staff can provide medication to ease withdrawal symptoms, including vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and body aches.
In the next few months, Jackson County and community partners plan to launch a new treatment program in jail that will provide long-term medication to ease withdrawal symptoms and curb drug cravings. Inmates will also get counseling and be connected to doctors and treatment centers in the community who will help once they’re released.
Medication-assisted treatment — which is becoming increasingly available out in the community — will launch in jail with four beds for women and four beds for men. Inmates in treatment need to be isolated from the general jail population, not placed in dorms with dozens of other people, Aldrich said.
A larger jail would provide room to expand medication-assisted treatment, he said.
The need far exceeds the eight beds available to launch the program.
Aldrich recently counted 300 inmates passing through the jail in one month who self-identified as being addicted to opioids. About one-in-three inmates said they have an opioid problem.
“If we can help them do it and we had space to do it, the numbers could be huge. It could really affect our community,” Aldrich said.
Harrison, the young woman who amassed criminal charges while addicted, said she remained obsessed by the thought of heroin even after she quit.
“I would dream about it. I would think about it. It was always on my mind. People say don’t do heroin because you’ll never get over it. It’s like an infection that gets in your mind,” she said.
Harrison talked to Dr. Kerri Hecox about her cravings and started taking medication to curb cravings. She said the medication is working and she plans to taper off it gradually.
Hecox, a Medford doctor who is helping the jail launch the medication-assisted treatment program, said addictive drugs activate the primitive reward and survival centers of the brain — reprogramming people’s brains to believe they need drugs to survive.
The changes override frontal lobe functions like problem-solving, planning, judgment, empathizing with others and impulse control.
“There’s a stigma that addiction is a choice people make. But their altered brain function is similar to people with a frontal lobe injury, like a traumatic brain injury. The brain is not working the same way,” Hecox said.
Hecox said both residential treatment and jail offer boundaries that help people break the cycle of addiction. She said she hasn’t taken a position in the community debate about a larger jail.
Addictions Recovery Center in Medford also doesn’t wish to comment on the proposal for a larger jail, said Joe Wilson, communications manager for the treatment organization.
“Someone’s treatment journey can begin anywhere. Whether inside or outside a jail, treatment works,” he said.
However, Wilson said there isn’t enough treatment capacity to serve everyone who is struggling with addiction.
Dr. Alan Ledford, OnTrack executive director, said outpatient treatment is generally available locally, but there is a shortage of residential treatment beds.
“Residential is filled up every day. We have waiting lists,” he said.
People who don’t have safe housing, are surrounded by addicts, have mental and physical health issues or have untreated trauma may need residential treatment. Pregnant women get top priority in the community, but fathers with children usually face long waits for residential care, Ledford said.
He has mixed feelings about the proposal for a larger jail.
“If we build a new jail with more room for addiction and mental health treatment, at least we capture people there at risk for criminal recidivism. Then we can look at longer-term strategies,” he said.
Whether the intervention is jail or residential treatment, Ledford said both approaches are catching people after they’re already addicted.
“We’re intervening once there’s a problem and when it’s most difficult to intervene,” he said.
Ledford said he would like to see even more work done on the prevention and education side.
Aldrich, the jail commander, agreed that by the time many people land in jail, they’re already in the grip of addiction and criminal behavior. But he said jail can be the place to reach people and help them start on the road to recovery.
“While they’re here, morally and ethically it feels like we have this obligation to try to help them as much as we can — especially those people that are ready to get that help,” Aldrich said.
Harrison said she’s come a long way since the days when her dad used to call authorities and ask why they had released her from jail yet again. Her final months-long stay in jail helped her rebuild her health, her family relationships and her self-worth.
“I was scared of living without drugs and alcohol. I didn’t like myself and what I was doing,” she said. “I needed drugs back then because I didn’t believe I was a good enough person to have the life I have now.”
CORRECTION AND UPDATE: This story was updated with November 2019 cost estimates for building a new jail. The story was corrected to show the $170.9 million cost of building a new jail does not include annual operating costs for running a larger jail, which would start at about $15.5 million if the jail opened in 2024.