Jonathan Oliveira holds his daughter Aella (2), as he addresses guests and graduates during the Worcester Community Corrections Center Graduation. Oliveira is a graduate of the program and received a completion certificate along with the other program participants. [Photo/Matt Wright]
By: Worcester Magazine – July 2, 2019
It is said that the first 24 hours after an inmate is released are the hardest, but at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction, the staff aims to ease that transition through the six-month residential Substance Treatment Opportunity Program (S.T.O.P) and Short S.T.O.P., a three-month certificate curriculum. Both are aimed at reducing recidivism and helping inmates become productive members of their communities when they leave incarceration, while learning how to remain drug- and alcohol-free.
Almost 90 percent of the inmates at the Worcester County House of Correction in West Boylston, according to Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, have a substance use disorder, and many of those are from the opioid epidemic, which he called a national crisis.
“We are at a war in America with an opioid epidemic that has lost more than we lost in the Vietnam War,” said Evangelidis. “We lost 70,000 people last year to opioids. Those are facts.”
But at the Worcester County House of Correction, the sheriff and his staff believed there were inmates who wanted to change their lives and break free from their addiction cycles. Instead of spending time idly in jail, what would happen if they were allowed an opportunity to work on themselves? As a result, S.T.O.P. was created more than 10 years ago, with its first client on Jan. 9, 2006, and followed by Short S.T.O.P. last year on July 9, 2018.
“We don’t judge people here – that has already happened. We are not the judge or jury. Our job is to take care of the custody part,” Evangelidis said. “For our inmate population, re-entry begins on day one at our correctional facility. We don’t let them off the hook; it’s no one’s fault but their own that they are in here. But, if they take responsibility and prove they want to make things better, we will meet them halfway and give them resources to give them opportunity to succeed when they are released.”
S.T.O.P. is a 36-bed, in-house extensive treatment program in a segregated unit and staffed by three substance use disorder (SUD) counselors. It is a voluntary program for those inmates who have “earned their way in through good behavior and a sincere effort to help themselves,” according to Evangelidis.
“Everyone lives together, works together. We find this is a very supportive program. If they’re not here to support each other, they don’t belong in this program,” Evangelidis said.
The five-day program — the only one of its kind in Massachusetts — begins at 8 a.m. with a morning meeting, and the rest of the time is divided into caseload groups, substance abuse educational and life skills classes, and individual counseling sessions. Participants have the opportunity to utilize other services, such as a parenting group, job search help and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and they can also work to get a GED/HiSet certification, as well as ServSafe or OSHA 10 certifications. In addition, specialty classes such as Anger Management, Victims’ Impact and Relapse Prevention are offered, and after completion, usually between 10 and 12 weeks, the program participants will be awarded a certificate.
“S.T.O.P. is a national model,” Evangelidis said. “Here, we have the best inmates with the best chance of turning their lives around. Our S.T.O.P. and Short S.T.O.P. programs give them the proper tools to understand and correct their criminogenic behavior and address their addiction head-on. Here, the recidivism rate is 29 percent versus over 50 percent nationwide. Corrections is very challenging work. We have a tremendously dedicated correctional and civilian staff who work hard every day to help these folks turn their lives around. When that happens, our community is not only a healthier place, but we are all safer.”
S.T.O.P. substance use disorder counselor Crystal Torres said she has witnessed the changes the men experience as they work through the program, particularly when they begin to reflect on their past actions.
“To be able to have a conversation about their feelings and own up to what they’ve done, it’s huge,” said Torres, who runs the Victims’ Impact classes and also works on the inmates with coping skills, triggers and self-esteem.
For the people who run the program, that is one of the most important aspects of S.T.O.P., as well as Short S.T.O.P. – the programs are based on the belief that while addiction is often the reason for behaviors, it is not an excuse. People need to be responsible and accountable for their actions, but also deserve opportunities for support, knowledge and intervention mechanisms.
“Demystifying addiction is important. Destigmatizing addiction is important,” Evangelidis said. But, he added, “We don’t coddle anybody. I’m talking about people who are going to recover, and they have to own it.”
As such, the programs use a multilayered approach to treat addiction as a brain disease and to address it mentally, morally, physically and spiritually. “There’s a huge debate whether addiction is a choice or a disease,” said Bianca Colon, a substance abuse counselor for Short S.T.O.P. “There is a choice within it, but once it becomes addition, it is a disease.”
S.T.O.P. has shown success – according to the last compiled results from the Sheriff’s Office, 65 percent of discharged participants in 2017 had successfully completed the program in compliance with treatment requirements. Inmates that did successfully finish S.T.O.P. had a lower recidivism rate, and of those who later had new charges, none were direct alcohol or drug offenses.
“I’m really proud of this program,” Evangelidis said. “I wish we could offer this in a bigger setting, but finances dictate what we do.”
The answer, for now, has been Short S.T.O.P., a voluntary program that focuses on substance abuse disorder, through cognitive and didactic educational classes. Located in Lower Maxi-C within the House of Correction, it has 25 beds and runs on a revolving basis so that inmates can be admitted as space becomes available.
“Every time we go to a graduation at S.T.O.P., it’s a very moving thing. But every time we’d walk away, the sheriff would say, ‘Why can’t we do this in other parts of the building? Why can’t we help more inmates?’” said Special Sheriff Andrew Abdella.
Based on the success of S.T.O.P., the Sheriff’s Office was able to obtain a Massachusetts Justice Reinvestment Initiative Recidivism Reduction grant through the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. A shortened version of S.T.O.P., the program runs Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m., with meetings, individual counseling and caseload groups. Two mandatory specialty groups, Anger Management and Relapse Prevention, are also part of Short S.T.O.P., and upon completion, participants will earn certificates.
Other classes include substance abuse education, family, coping skills, emotions and triggers. Through these discussions, the inmates hopefully learn to become comfortable with themselves and their past. “What they’ve been doing is numbing themselves – some of them for most of their lives,” explained Colon.
“Part of recovery is being comfortable being uncomfortable,” she said, adding that society has perpetuated a fake belief that at some point, life won’t ever be a struggle. “It’s about understanding that you’re going to struggle – but having the capacity to get through it without harming yourself.”
For many of the inmates, acceptance of their past actions and consequences, such as family members and friends deserting them, can also be difficult, said Colon. “A lot of these guys have experienced trauma in their lives. Not everyone who has experienced trauma becomes an addict, but almost certainly, every addict has experienced some sort of trauma,” she said.
Admittance to both S.T.O.P and Short S.T.O.P. is a rigorous process – inmates who want to be considered have to apply and then do an interview, answering some tough questions about themselves, their substance abuse and why they want to be in the program. If they are accepted, they must maintain good behavior, show commitment to the program and the work that needs to be done, and also follow rules, such as arriving for classes on time, bringing necessary materials and completing homework. Those who fail to follow the rules first receive a vocal reprimand, then an informal written behavioral contract, and finally, a formal 30-day behavioral contract if the actions continue.
“We believe in behavior modification, not just throwing someone out of the program,” said Director of Substance Abuse Lesa Vaudreuil.
Through it all, there are words of encouragement and hope. “You may not accomplish your goal that day. It doesn’t mean you fail,” said Scot Burns, a substance use disorder counselor who works in the S.T.O.P. unit. “If you look at everything as a failure, how are you going to progress?”
Benjamin (last name withheld to protect privacy), 28, who was a S.T.O.P. participant until his release from incarceration in April, said of the program, “You get to know yourself really well. It’s a humbling experience. I thought I had everything figured out. I didn’t have anything figured out. It helped me more than I thought it would.”
That help came in the form of getting his GED, which his counselor encouraged him to pursue, Benjamin said, and even everyday tasks like sweeping the floor became accomplishments for him, allowing him to set daily goals. “You can’t come into this program and coast by. This is an opportunity,” said Benjamin.
“We are facilitators. We try to increase motivation for these guys,” Burns said. “We try to help them through those moments of, ‘Do I really want to keep doing this?’ If we are able to be the first person to believe in them, by the time we get to six months, that’s a huge step.”
That’s exactly how Benjamin felt about his counselors. “I owe my life to these people,” he said. “They’ve given me a chance to reach my high point. I was ashamed to say I was an addict, but now I’m not. I see how far I’ve come.”
Jamie (last name also withheld), a fellow participant in the S.T.O.P. program who was recently released on parole to a long-term residential program, said he previously had been distrustful of people. But now, “I trust my counselor with my life,” he said. “That’s what this place has given me.”
Jamie, 45, spent his younger years in foster homes and lock-ups. “It wasn’t long before I was used to no family and no homes. Then I started using. I stopped caring because that’s how I protected myself,” he recalled. “I’m a smart person — I know I’m a smart person — but I didn’t act like a smart person.”
Fentanyl-laced heroin led to a one-month coma, and later, after being incarcerated, Jamie didn’t know how to handle his past or respond to the people he had hurt. “It goes all the way to the end – everyone’s affected,” he said, but added that through S.T.O.P. and his counselors, “they helped me recognize my behaviors and patterns.”
If people like himself have help, such as from the counselors and other staff members at the House of Correction who show they care, then the inmates have more of an opportunity to be better members of society, Jamie said. “People need compassionate people in their lives,” he said. “If they have that, they’re apt to change.”
Benjamin added, “Don’t look at us as inmates – look at us as people trying to change. If your son or daughter is struggling with addiction, get them help. Don’t give up on them. This correctional facility didn’t give up on us.”
Prior to graduating from S.T.O.P. and Short S.T.O.P. and before being released from incarceration, inmates meet with the reintegration counselor, who helps to set up a tailored aftercare plan. The plan typically includes residential placement into a long-term residential treatment program, transitional housing or sober housing. Inmates also receive assistance scheduling appointments for a primary care physician, substance abuse and mental health services if needed, and have active Mass Health insurance upon release.
“We want to make sure they go back to the right environment,” Evangelidis emphasized. “It’s a really important part of what we do. Re-entry starts on day one. You don’t just talk to them the day they’re getting out.”
“That’s someone’s son, that’s someone’s father,” Vaudreuil said. “These guys return to our communities. We have to remember that. They’re our next-door neighbors.”
Part of the planning requires that all the inmates work on a relapse maintenance plan, whether they are involved with S.T.O.P. or Short S.T.O.P. For some of the inmates, this is particularly hard to do, but, Colon said, even if they do have a relapse, it “doesn’t mean you want to relapse. Your relapse plan is your insurance. For some, relapse is part of the journey.”
Benjamin said he felt he was prepared for life after incarceration and eventually would like to go to college. “I’m all set. I haven’t been able to say that with other incarcerations. Usually they kick you out the door,” he said.
Had he not been part of S.T.O.P., things might have been different for him, Benjamin said. “I honestly told myself this was the last time I was going to jail. I might have been dead. I might have been incarcerated again. There’s not telling. I can tell you what I’m going to be – and that’s successful,” he said.
“Until this point, I haven’t lived life at all. If life throws me a curveball, I don’t need to get high,” he added. “It’s hard getting released from incarceration. There’s a lot of emotions thrown at you. But now I know how to handle it.”
The 24 hours after incarceration is a pivotal time.
“Take that hour to go to a meeting. Spend time with your loved ones. That’s what makes you whole,” aid Torres.
Colon added, “What’s day one going to look like for them? The first 24 hours is a big point for them. Can you get that 24-hour coin?”
Many times, Vaudreuil said, inmates who have been released will later call to check in with their counselors. “They like that they’re able to call here, either for an update or help. They like that there’s a sense of community. It’s their connection to us,” she said.
Other times, it’s to hear the encouraging words they received from their counselors when they were incarcerated. “Sometimes, they’ve never had that opportunity for someone to be proud of them,” Vaudreuil said, and once they’re released, “now, all of a sudden, they have to do it on their own. They have to earn the respect again. We teach them that. Addiction is a selfish disease. Giving them hope is what they need.”
For those who have a relapse and might find themselves back in jail again, the staff seeks them out to talk to them and find out what happened. Because addiction is a recurrant disease, her philosophy, and Assistant Director of Substance Abuse Walter Rafferty’s as well, is “we’ll never give up,” Vaudreuil said.
“I’m not going to focus on the negativity, that you had a relapse,” she added. “I’m going to focus on, you had a good two-week run. We need to focus on the positive.”
Like S.T.O.P., Short S.T.O.P. has been successful as well. Since its inception just about a year ago, 119 inmates have entered Short S.T.O.P., 74 have graduated to date and 23 are currently enrolled (the remainder were administration-discharged or self-discharged), according to the Sheriff’s Office. Currently, there is a waiting list of inmates who want to be admitted into the program. And, said Vaudreuil, three post-graduates have asked to stay in the program to help provide support to the participants and co-facilitate the groups.
“That’s how well received this program is,” Vaudreuil said.
William Wilson, 54, is one of those who is still involved with Short S.T.O.P. He graduated on April 16, but applied for and was accepted to stay as a post-graduate support to others still in the program while he himself completes his sentence. In and out of jail since 1981, he has been at the House of Correction for more than a year. And although he had reached a point in his life where he wanted to change — “I receded into somebody that was existing rather than living,” he said — he credits the program and the staff for motivating him.
“I’ve never seen more dedication,” he said of the staff. “That empowers me more, to keep working in this field. I feel I have a calling. I’ve changed so much.”
Rafferty said that when Wilson speaks, it isn’t a “performance.” He added, “This is why we do what we do. It’s stories like this that invigorate me. He’s gone above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen. He’s the example of what we’re looking for.”
But Wilson didn’t always feel that way. “My life had become to the point where I could not function. Everything revolved around alcohol and substance abuse. I lost jobs, friends, family and girlfriends,” he said.
“I remember the first drink I had. I stole it from my mother’s liquor cabinet,” Wilson recalled. “I’ve done basically every drug known to man. In the process, I lost myself. I became a different person. I never grew up and took responsibility for myself and my actions.”
Today, however, he said, “I’m tired of losing. I’m tired of not being me. My goal is to get me right – I work on that every day.”
Wilson’s goal is to be an “outstanding person” and to work in the substance abuse field. “If I can save just one, I’ll be happy,” he said, adding, “For the first time in my life, I’m happy. I have this willpower, this determination, this exhilaration to succeed. I just know I’m going to make it. I don’t want to take a step back. Every day, I’m taking steps forward.”
Wilson credited the program’s staff with motivating him every day to do exactly that. “We have a community of people who understand the problem and we’re working to fix it together, from inmates to professionals. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing,” he said. “I thank everyone for the opportunity, and I can’t stress how important it is for me to keep this going.”
For Adam Gagnon, who graduated from Short S.TO.P. on May 10 and has since been released on parole to a long-term residential program, the program’s staff also had encouraged and motivated him in numerous ways. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, this has become a part of me – institutionalized because of drugs and alcohol. To see these people come in every day – selfless,” he said of the staff. “I’ve always been involved with selfish people.”
Gagnon, 35, said the staff’s care, influence and positive impact have all been extremely meaningful for him. “I’ve gotten hope from them. Somebody who has no ulterior motive wants to help me, and they want to help me for the sake of helping me. It’s huge,” he said. “The positive reinforcement has been key for me.”
It wasn’t that long ago, he said, that he was often in what he called negative space. “I put myself in negative situations because of that negative space. This time, I wanted more. In order to get more, you have to give more,” he said.
The youngest of four kids, Gagnon was 10 years old when he first starting using drugs because he “wanted to be part of the crew,” he recalled. At 17, an accident with a chop saw that required extensive surgery on his arm led to taking painkillers like Oxycontin.
“That’s when the love affair with opiates started, and like most affairs, it had a horrible ending,” Gagnon said.
When the painkillers weren’t strong enough anymore, he turned to heroin and cocaine and had been in jail six times throughout the years. “I didn’t really want to learn anything about it,” he said of his substance abuse. “I didn’t really want to change anything. I didn’t know change was possible.”
Through Short S.T.O.P., however, he learned not only about his substance abuse, but also about self-awareness, honesty, relapse and anger management. “I’ve always had anger issues, and it’s always brought me back to a bottle or drugs. I’ve had a lot of rage in my life, and I’m able to identify that now. It’s huge,” he said. “I’m still a work in progress, but putting myself out there to get to this point was probably the hardest part. That comes from admitting you’re wrong, that you have weaknesses. Who wants to do that?”
Gagnon added, “This is my first time putting myself in an environment where the potential for growth is infinite. I was at a really low place when I got here. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gained so much from the program. This program has taken me out of my comfort zone.”
Another piece in the fight against opioids is trying to help people before they end up in jail — or keep them out of jail again — through the Community Corrections Center programs in Worcester, Webster and Fitchburg. Each one is a day reporting center for people who have appeared before a judge and have been found guilty of a crime but don’t require a prison sentence, or for paroled inmates or inmates ordered to do community service to finish out their sentences, according to Evangelidis.
Violators will end up receiving a jail sentence, but for those who successfully complete the program, they graduate with new skills and certifications.
“This is the future of incarceration,” he said.
The participants are required to report daily, submit to random drug tests and perform community service, but are given opportunities for resume-building, work experience and substance abuse management. They take a series of cognitive behavior therapy classes, can earn a HiSet certificate, and receive job
readiness training and work placement – all to help reduce recidivism and to help individuals with recovery from opiate addiction.
Case managers at the courthouses work with the Community Correction Centers, which are under the Worcester County Sheriff ’s Office and partnered with the Office of the Commissioner of Probation and Office of Community Corrections. The Webster location, however, is directly funded through the Sheriff ’s Office and has become not only a reporting center but also a resource center for the entire South County community, according to Evangelidis.
“We have people who say, ‘The minute I walked into that center, I was never judged,’” he said. “I’m proud of it. It’s the only model of its type.”
Despite the gains, however, Evangelidis said he is limited by his budget. “The inequity of sheriff funding is completely unfair and disgraceful,” he said, noting that the Worcester County House of Correction has more inmates and also has fewer teachers and substance abuse counselors, but receives less funding — a difference
of more than $20 million — than the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction. “Where is the fairness in that?” he asked. “There isn’t any.”
Proper funding is especially important because, Evangelidis said, “I believe we’re going to look back and say the opioid issue is the issue of our times. I just believe sheriffs play a major, major role in society in the epidemic – and finding solutions to the epidemic. I’m honored to be working with people who are dedicated.”
“We know not everyone survives this disease. This disease kills people every day,” Colon said. “There are thousands upon thousands who lose their lives every day. We’re trying to stop that from happening to you and your family. It’s hard to find a family in America these days that hasn’t been affected by this disease. That’s why we’re passionate about this program – we can save lives.”
She added, “It’s tough. You can’t save everyone. If you save one person, that’s one family. But you can go to work every day and try to make a difference.”
Said Wilson, “It’s more than an epidemic – it’s a war. Because of the drugs, they took the wrong path. I can speak for these guys here. They didn’t grow up wanting to be in jail and a drug addict and a shame to our families. Fueled by the addiction, we became trapped.
“I’m not that guy anymore. I want you to sit down next to me and hear my story, so we can rise above this,” he added. “There are so many things we can do to make things better. I know what I’m going to do when I get out of here: I’m going to raise my hand and say, ‘I’m Bill Wilson, and I’m here to help.’”