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Editorial: Helping released inmates stay clean is both humane and fiscally responsible

This is one of those ideas that is so smart and sensible, you wonder why no one thought of it before. David Seay surely thinks so.

Seay is, once again, an inmate of the Erie County Holding Center. At 57, he remains what he has been for decades: addicted to drugs and a familiar face in the county jail. He says he has been arrested 62 times – a figure jail personnel say is likely accurate – and he blamed it squarely on his own bad decisions, including the one to start using drugs. This time, though, he may be offered a better chance of staying out of jail.

When inmates with addictions such as Seay are admitted to the jail, they are separated from other inmates and are seen by a nurse. If they are going through withdrawal, they are placed in a special unit where they detoxify under medical supervision. Serious cases go to ECMC.

During detox – which typically lasts five days – inmates are monitored and receive medications for the symptoms of withdrawal.

So far, so good. But detoxing is only the first step along a difficult path to recovery. It does nothing to prepare inmates to cope outside of jail, where old relationships and familiar environments can – and do – trigger relapses. That’s true of all addicts, whether they are reliant on alcohol or heroin and whether they have been jailed or not. Recovery is a twisting and pitted road, strewn with obstacles.

Jail officials and the Department of Mental Health are working to clear some of those hindrances. They hope to launch a recovery program for willing inmates to attend after they are released. It could function as a circuit breaker, ensuring that released inmates who want to stay clean have the medical assistance and counseling needed to help them do so.

Had Seay both the interest and the access to such a program, he might have had decades of a more productive, less criminal life. So would other addicted inmates who leave jail only to fall back into the bad habits that ensnared them in the first place. And taxpayers would have been saved millions of dollars in the costs of arrest, trial and incarceration.

This idea is worthy all around. It is cost-effective, socially useful and, just as important, humane. It offers a way out to drug addicts, recognizing that their behavior stems from a medical issue and that dealing with it requires the help of experts.

It will cost money, and that’s where public officials need to find common ground. While the Sheriff’s Department and Health Department ultimately agreed that three new employees would be needed, the Erie County Legislature thinks the job can be done with fewer. That’s a matter for experts, and legislators should seek them out in trying to determine how best to serve taxpayers while helping addicted inmates.

Too few new workers could mean the effort is more likely to fail, ultimately at greater public expense. Too many is wasteful.
That the effort is needed, though, is beyond dispute. The numbers are disturbing: Nearly 42 percent of the 15,700 inmates at the Holding Center last year were addicted to drugs and went through detox. The percentage has roughly doubled since 2013, when jail administrators started tracking the numbers, likely an outgrowth of the opioid epidemic that has swept across the country, including Erie County.

It will be important to keep matters in perspective. Not all inmates will want to recover and those who do are likely to fail one or more times, even if they are committed to their sobriety. Such is the fierce and unforgiving nature of addiction.

Those who want to clean up their lives deserve the chance to escape that grip, to regain control of their lives and to lower the public costs of what is otherwise the jailhouse’s revolving door.

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