'You're Not Going To Arrest Your Way Out Of Addiction': Sarasota Jail Program Emphasizes Recovery

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 26, 2019 3:16 pm

In the addiction recovery pod at the Sarasota County Jail, large windows flood the detention unit with sunlight. Two stories of jail cells frame an open area where men in orange jumpsuits sit at tables to chat or play a game of chess.

Soon, inmates like John will gather for one of the pod's four daily meetings focused on sober living.

"When I first came to jail, I started thinking about things and it was like, where do I start my journey in the road that I need to go on," he said. "And when I came in here, it showed me not only is there a road but the directions on the road to go, and how to stay on that road.”

People with substance abuse disorders frequently cycle in and out of jail. We're not using last names of the inmates in this story to protect their identities. In the past, law enforcement has treated addiction as a criminal problem and not a health issue. But the program in Sarasota emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment.

The addiction recovery pod was launched in 2009 with one men’s unit and has since expanded to include a wing for female inmates. Each pod can house up to 48 non-violent offenders. Beyond the cost of incarceration, this program is not a burden to taxpayers.

Admission to the program is voluntary but full participation is not. Inmates must attend 12-step meetings administered by the Salvation Army and life skill classes run by church communities and various nonprofit groups like Project 180. Many of the meetings include former inmates who serve as real-life role models.

"A lot of our AA volunteers and NA volunteers have sat in the seats that these guys are sitting in, so they get it," said Lieutenant Arlene Tracy, of the Sarasota Sheriff's office. " They're really quite honest and tell them that this is what you need to do to get from A to B."

And for the deputies working in the pod, it’s about more than just guarding the inmates. Captain Daniel Tutko says he's developed real connections.

"It pulls at your heart because you think to yourself, 'well you know what, that could be me,'" he said. "That could be my son in here. And it really makes you think--are we doing the best that we can do to help people reintegrate?"

For inmates like Chris, who is serving his second stint in jail, the program does offer that chance to break the cycle of re-offending.

"The opportunity that Sarasota County gives someone here to look at themselves in relation to their addiction whether its drugs, alcohol, you're actually given an opportunity that people pay for on the street."

Last year about 1,600 people were arrested for narcotics crimes in Sarasota County. Another 150 were arrested for drug paraphernalia offenses. And those statistics don't include the many crimes committed to fuel an addiction like theft or dealing in stolen property.

That's why Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight says treatment makes sense.

"One thing I've always recognized is that you're not going to arrest your way out of social issues, you're not going to arrest your way out of addiction," he said, "And if these programs help keep people out of jail and make them better people, that's the whole idea of corrections. So we're trying to change the mindset from jail to corrections."

This program and others like it represent a paradigm shift from the war on drugs years and Knight says not everybody was on board when the program launched 10 years ago.

But he says perceptions are changing.

"We are seeing a different temperament of Sheriff come in that want to do things like this, that want to make their community better, not just by protecting it but also helping the citizens who are inside of it," he said.

In 2016, The Manatee County Sheriff's Office opened a new alcohol and drug recovery pod at its county jail. And inmates with an opioid addiction are being treated at what's called the O-Pod at the Seminole County Jail in Central Florida.

But while treatment in prison or jail can begin a process of recovery, continuing drug treatment in the community is essential to sustaining sobriety. 

As part of the program in Sarasota, felons are offered continued help. Upon release, the same groups that run the jail programs also offer links to sober-living houses, 12-step meetings and job connections.

For inmates like Chris, that support could represent a change in his trajectory.  In the outside world, felons often return to the very temptations that got them into trouble. And environments that strongly trigger relapse.

"I'm a little over 50 years old," he said.  "It's a sad situation but just to be 100 percent honest, this pod teaches us that things happen for a reason.  And it's not too late to make a difference when I walk out these doors."

The majority of inmates with addiction problems do end up back behind bars.  But In Sarasota County, officials say the recovery pod gives them a much better chance at staying out.