“Show of hands,” said Montgomery County Court Administrator Jim Dare. “How many of you have overdosed?”
Among the roughly three dozen women sitting circled in the former prison community room, nearly all raised their hands.
“I’m thankful to be sitting here,” said Shellie Werling, 52, who has overdosed three times — most recently in February while visiting her mom’s nursing home. That is why she was on the 62nd day of her sentence to the Secure Transitional Offender Program (STOP).
“I let the stress get to me and went and got a little bit. One cap. It was fentanyl,” she said. “This is my last chance.”
Many of the men and women in the STOP program have already failed lighter sentences involving treatment, and a judge decided they needed intensive intervention in a locked-down setting managed by the county.
STOP houses 96 people in a former state prison where a guard house is now a classroom and former cells are offices for behavioral health, mental health, drug treatment, education and job training programs.
County court officials say this program is one effort to push back against the tide of opioid deaths overwhelming the region. Although they are not free to come and go as they please, those in the program receive a variety of services aimed at turning their lives around.
“Especially the young people who are in the STOP program, this gives them hope,” said Barbara Maloney, site coordinator for the Brunner Literacy Center at the county’s Day Reporting Center.
The Day Reporting Center opened this year and brought the literacy center, behavioral health agencies such as Eastway and Nova, legal resources, addiction recovery resources, job training, health resources and more into one building.
The building is on the campus of the former Montgomery Education and Pre-Release Center, a state institution that once housed 352 male inmates. It closed in 2012. The fenced property consists of a half dozen buildings that are mostly aligned in an inward-facing crescent along South Gettysburg Avenue.
Today, one of the buildings houses the MonDay Community Correctional Institution, where the program’s female population can be sentenced to a treatment-focused incarceration lasting six months.
Another building houses the STOP program. It’s split in half, with 48 males on one side and 48 females on the other. The clients live there for 30 to 90 days as they work on bettering themselves. They maintain the grounds and leave for community service work every other day.
The Day Reporting Center was the most recent addition. Walls are decorated with glass mosaics made by former clients.
“We’ve taken cells and made them into group rooms. We’ve made them into training rooms. We’ve made them into offices,” Dare said.
‘They probably saved my life’
Maloney said the literacy center only intended to help people sharpen their learning skills, but it has far surpassed that: In the first year, it has helped 40 inmates get their GEDs. Others have increased reading and writing at the grade school level.
She produced a letter from her pocket that a man had given her that day. She had asked him to write a few sentences about how he felt about her. He was learning how to use periods.
“When I first met Barb, I shied away from her,” the letter read in careful print. “She made sure I gave her eye contact. I found out very soon she was a good and caring person. She was willing to help me.”
More than a dozen other people she worked with were able to improve their math skills.
“They can now read and function, can count money, can go to a store and know they are not being cheated, or not pay somebody on the street to fill out their forms,” she said.
Matt Bays is in the STOP program and is working on his GED.
The 39-year-old Miamisburg man said in January he was visiting his fiancé at Sycamore Medical Center, where she was being treated with a blood infection from drug use. He snuck into the bathroom to shoot up.
“I woke up downstairs in the ER,” he said.
While charges were pending from that overdose, he OD’d again while driving around with a friend.
“She pushed me out of the car,” he said. “They found me and thought I was dead. Somebody came out on their front porch and called the cops.”
His fiancé died in April, he said. He was sentenced to the STOP program in October.
“They probably saved my life,” he said.
‘We need more answers’
An ocular drug testing machine, which measures an eye’s capillaries, is used to ensure that residents like Bays are clean.
The treatment the program provides is aimed at helping them stay clean once they are out.
Bays was particularly struck with a system called Thinking for a Change — T4C for short — which teaches problem-solving skills.
Nearly three dozen men sat at long tables in the STOP program main room discussing T4C. A reporter asked them what they’ve learned that they will take with them once they leave.
“A person’s life can change in one second,” one man offered.
“Control your anger,” said another.
A third man said he was getting his GED. “That’s something I wouldn’t have done out on the street on my own,” he said.
STOP is not a starting point for these people, court officials say. Usually sentencing involves a progression, starting with outpatient treatment, then residential treatment and finally a program like STOP. If they continue violating, they can end up in jail or prison.
“Ultimately the decision of what do to with an individual and how to structure sentencing for them is based entirely on the individual,” said Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Erik Blaine.
“The needs of society are met by making sure we don’t have better criminals when people are released from incarceration,” he said. “One of my personally held beliefs is that, frankly, addicts and users need treatment, while the traffickers need prison.”
Blaine said Montgomery County is blessed to have treatment options for offenders, but in the face of the opioid epidemic, more is always needed.
“We need more answers. We need more facilities of any sort. We need more people working towards this and continuing to work towards this,” he said.
So far this year, 308 men and 222 women have successfully completed the STOP program. Twenty-three men and 12 women have not for reasons such as disciplinary issues or running away.
Tighter security this year led to fewer escapees — nine total compared with 54 in 2016.
STOP is cheaper than jail. County officials say the cost to the county for STOP is $53.09 per day, compared to $61.75 at the jail and $79 at MonDay. Non-residential community control costs $3.47 per day.
Some of the men and women in STOP have been there or in other mandated treatment before.
“They’re here because their treatment attempts in the community have failed,” said James Yerkins, deputy court administrator.
“They have the judge on their back because they failed, however our court recognizes that one attempt is not enough,” he said. “We want to provide for them as many attempts as possible so that they can be successful.”
Codie Rickmon is in STOP for the third time. When asked why she expected this stay to have a lasting impact, she said the help she is receiving is helping her understand how trauma and other underlying problems need to be addressed to fight her addiction.
“I was always confused about why I couldn’t just put the drugs down,” she said. “(The program) lets me go deep into why I use and it helps me get to the root of why I use.”
“I’m just grateful and thankful for a chance,” she said.