A new pre-trial detox program designed to keep addicts out of jail

It was Dorothy Mellett’s birthday and she couldn’t have asked for a better gift than a hug from her son, Nik. 

“I’m just glad he’s back home and he’s healthy and he’s clean,” his mother Dorothy Mellett says, smiling at her son.

Nik is now off of heroin after finishing a groundbreaking 28-day detox program at the Middleton House of Corrections.  

“It probably did save my life,” Nik admits. “Given a second chance, I’m gonna put my all into this.”

The 20 year-old’s downward spiral began when he started drinking alcohol as a teenager and quickly became addicted to pain killers.

When that wasn’t enough of a high, he started shooting up heroin. It was an addiction that landed him behind bars, awaiting a hearing on drug charges.

“I had a choice of here or the jail…” Nik explained. “And I took this, because I do want help.”  

From the outside, the Middleton House of Correction looks like any other jail. But, on the second floor, there is a specialized detoxification unit where addict’s lives are changing.

Cheryl Fiandaca spoke with Nik when he was two days away from finishing the program.  

“I have hope this time,” Nik says optimistically. “I haven’t been truly clean for 30 days since I started using when I was like 16. This gives me a shot I really didn’t have before.”

Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins says jails are full of people like Nik who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. They get released and go back to using drugs and committing crime. It is a cycle he believes has to be broken while the inmates are awaiting trial.

“You can’t make corrective behavior if someone is still using prescription drugs, using heroin, drinking,” he says. “Their lives will continue to unravel.”

Cousins says the nearly month-long program is the first of its kind in our area.  It is designed to be completely self-contained inside the jail.

The inmates in the program are kept totally separate with no interaction with any other inmates.  He explained the 42 bed program started in December. The specialized detoxification unit is voluntary and strict. Participants are first medically and psychologically evaluated. The men are then given individualized treatment plans that include a daily therapy schedule and assigned counselors. For the first two weeks they are not allowed to have visitors from family or friends.  

Sean Lebroda, the director of the detox unit, describes the program. “When you look at the culture you see participants happy and excited to be in treatment and their engaged. When you look around, they are in their detox scrubs if you will. Versus the jail inmate uniform. They are known as participants of the unit,” he explains. “Even the officers are dressed differently with their uniforms. They have their recreation on the unit. We really try to make the unit as therapeutic as we can.”

Participants who complete the program go back to court hoping, as in Nik’s case, the judge will release them with an approved long term treatment plan instead of sending them back to jail.

Nik says he’s grateful for this opportunity and is taking his recovery seriously.

“Lately I’ve seen a lot of my friends pass away in the past year. It’s ridiculous how many people are just going,” he says. “I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I don’t want my mother to be at my funeral- that’s my biggest motivation.”

The sheriff’s office plans to track the participants over the next several months to measure the success of the program. The annual cost of running the detox unit is 1.7 million dollars, and the sheriff’s office is now applying for state grants to help pay for it.

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