State Poised To Open First 'Rehab Prison' At Mid-State Correctional Facility

New Jersey leaders hope that clinically driven ‘treatment prison’ will become national model, but Christie not looking for 100 percent success.

Inmates with substance-use disorders will soon be moving into the refurbished Mid-State Correctional Facility to participate in New Jersey’s first “treatment prison,” a clinically driven program New Jersey leaders hope will be seen as a national model.

Closed since 2014, the 696-bed Fort Dix facility has been renovated to serve as a residential correctional facility specifically for medium-security male inmates who are diagnosed with drug addictions. Inmates who chose to serve their sentence at Mid-State will be enrolled in state-certified treatment programs, for as long as it takes for them to get and stay clean. Some 70 percent of inmates are struggling with addiction issues, experts said.

A similar program will soon follow at the 65-bed Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, in Hunterdon County’s Union Township, officials said. The treatment services will be licensed by the state Department of Human Services, which oversees programs outside prison walls, and provided by the Gateway Foundation, a group that has four decades of experience with addiction and mental health issues and currently provides treatment services in some New Jersey prisons.

“I absolutely believe that drug addiction is a disease. I believe it’s a disease that can and should be treated. And I believe that it leads to a lot of the crime that we have in this state and to a lot of ruined lives and ruined families,” Gov. Chris Christie said Monday, when he joined some 17 state policy leaders and prison officials at Mid-State to announce its reopening.

A first look at the program

The Republican governor first unveiled the program in his 2016 state of the state address, and it builds on his growing efforts to combat New Jersey’s epidemic of drug addiction, including among criminal offenders. Christie has significantly expanded the state’s drug-court diversion program, which allows nonviolent criminals to opt for treatment instead of jail time, but has said more needs to be done to help incarcerated individuals with their addictions as well.

“I don’t know how we can effectively rehabilitate someone who has been involved in criminal activity if the root of their criminal activity is drug use and abuse and we’re not treating them for that in a way that uses the most modern techniques,” Christie said Monday. “People are now going to be getting treatment that will help them when they leave the corrections institution to have a chance to have a better life.”

While the state Department of Corrections now offers drug-treatment programs at half of its inmate facilities, officials said these are not licensed by the DHS or tailored to an individual inmate’s needs. They are also available only at the end of an inmate’s sentence and for a limited time. (The DOC said 12-step programs, like Narcotics Anonymous, and support groups exist in all 12 prisons, including the maximum-security facility in Trenton; some minimum-security inmates also participate in community-based programs.)

“We know what we’re doing now is having only spotty results,” Christie said, noting that the new approach is “more than worth the try.” The program will be funded from the more than $20 million in savings generated since Mid-State closed three years ago, he said.

Security remains intact

While Mid-State will remain a secure facility — complete with razor-wire fences, guard tower, and multiple locked gates — the inmates’ daily life will largely revolve around treatment. They will enter the new program with a more in-depth diagnosis: screenings from professionals with Rutgers University Correctional Health Care, who currently assess all inmates, as well as a more comprehensive analysis from Gateway Foundation staff. Based on those findings, inmates will receive a personalized treatment plan and be assigned to one of four levels of treatment, depending on the severity of their disease, officials said.

Services will involve a mix of clinical and behavioral therapy, and other services, including medication-assisted treatment, an at-times controversial method in which prescription medicines (like methadone or buprenorphine) are used to block an opiate high and prevent withdrawal. In addition, inmates who complete the course will graduate with a certificate that reflects their work — the same recognition they would receive if they attended programs outside the prison system, officials said.

“We want to offer what is offered in the community, because this is the standard of care,” said Dr. Herbert Kaldany, the DOC’s director of psychiatry and addiction services.

Mid-State will accept new inmates with addiction diagnoses who are not eligible for the drug-court programs, officials said. It will also absorb the existing treatment programs at other locations, and their participants.

A national model

Elizabeth Connelly, acting commissioner of the DHS, said the program could become a national model for helping inmates get back on their feet. Christie embraced this idea and said he had high expectations for the staff involved — but not unrealistic expectations.

“One hundred percent success is not the standard. It’s ‘can we change lives and have an impact,’ that’s the standard,” the governor said.

While the new program is designed to improve inmate care and challenge assumptions that these individuals “don’t have any value,” Christie stressed how it can also benefit society at large. Government is responsible for the health, safety, and social stability of its citizens, he said, and drug addiction — with the crime and violence it spurs — make a stable society difficult.

“This is smart on crime,” agreed James Plousis, chairman of the State Parole Board. “We want (released inmates) to succeed. And this gives them the tools to succeed.”

Christie — who is scheduled to join former Gov. Jim McGreevey, now a leader in efforts to improve prisoner reentry, at a conference on the issue Thursday — said he planned to roll out other initiatives to smooth the transition from prison to community in the coming months. “It’s all part of the same continuum,” Christie said.

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