Rich Wilder spent over ten years of his life in and out of prisons in New Jersey. As an addict, Wilder said he’s had to detox in a “rubber room” in Ocean County Jail as his body fought off anywhere from 30 to 50 bags of heroin along with countless Xanax pills and other dangerous drugs. He’s relapsed multiple times and has been to several rehabilitation facilities. He’s even tried to kick his habit through willpower. But now, Wilder is celebrating four years clean this August and he said he owes it all to his experience with prisoner re-entry programs in the state.
“I did do something remarkable, and every day I battle the disease of addiction,” Wilder said at last week’s annual re-entry conference hosted by the New Jersey Reentry Corp. (NJRC), a nonprofit run by former Gov. Jim McGreevey. “[Re-entry] was a pivotal moment in my recovery because it gave me purpose. It gave me a job, it gave me some type of direction. Without that program I don’t know where I might have been.”
Prisoner re-entry programs are at the forefront of fighting the opioid epidemic in prisoners and reducing state recidivism rates. They aim to make sure that those convicted can make a smooth transition into New Jersey life by helping inmates manage their addictions, earn an education and job training, and create a clear and purposeful pathway from behind the wall back into the community. At this year’s re-entry conference in Jersey City, the emphasis was on battling addiction through medication-assisted treatment, assistance with job training, housing security, and access to education.
It all depends on Murphy
That work however, is dependent on Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget.
According to Murphy’s budget breakdown for fiscal year 2019, the New Jersey Reentry Corporation will see all its state funding cut. Under the current state budget signed by Gov. Chris Christie, the NJRC received $4 million and was able to expand to eight locations across the state and serve more than 4,000 clients. The NJRC had hoped Murphy would be more generous than his predecessor and provide $5 million in funding as Murphy had spoken about the importance of comprehensive re-entry programs while on the campaign trail.
The cuts would be “catastrophic” for the individuals seeking assistance according to McGreevey, who said he plans to fight for that funding.
“I will give the full measure of every ounce of my being to stand for these persons,” McGreevey said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “The re-entry population ought not to be a political football. These are men and women trying to change their lives and they need to be respected, and they need to be honored for their hard work, their dignity, and their sobriety.”
McGreevey said he was “heartened” that First Lady Tammy Murphy sat on a panel at the conference, but he is still calling for the governor to fund the NJRC.
McGreevey: ‘Ludicrous … inexplicable’
“What’s ludicrous is that we’re willing to spend over a billion dollars to lock people in cages but we’re not willing to spend $5 million for re-entry services. That is inexplicable to me,” McGreevey said. According to an NJRC report, incarcerating someone for one year in New Jersey costs $53,681 while enrolling that same person in NJRC costs $2,200. McGreevey added that he intends to form a collaborative taskforce of representatives from the healthcare industry, law enforcement, legal services and other relevant parties to tackle re-entry in the state.
“If the governor doesn’t want to understand the importance of a re-entry taskforce, the New Jersey Reentry Corp. will form one, but I’d like to do it in partnership with the State of New Jersey,” McGreevey said.
Gov. Murphy’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the cut in funding.
One major contributor to a successful re-entry is sobriety. For many former prisoners, their ongoing battle with addiction can be the biggest hurdle to their reintegration. According to a National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse report, 85 percent of all incarcerated individuals in the country are involved with drugs or other addictive substances, but only 11 percent of those addicted inmates receive treatment during their incarceration.
Upon imprisonment, addicts like Wilder are often forced to detox without any medication assistance — a painful, and in some cases life-threatening process that does not equate to permanent sobriety. In fact, detoxing can lower an individual’s tolerance level so that when they are released back into the community and seek out drugs once more (relapse is common with opioid addictions in particular), they are more likely to overdose. Without sustained access to treatment beginning in jail, experts say, addicts are most likely to become incarcerated again. For many, job training and education are of little use if they cannot manage their addiction.
Though Murphy’s budget does not provide the funding McGreevey was looking for, other major power players in the state have announced their commitment to improving the re-entry process in New Jersey.
Menendez says will fight for funds for NJ
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) delivered a keynote address at the conference where he acknowledged the outsized impact that opioid addiction has on those who’ve served time. “The road to recovery from opioid addiction is long and hard for anyone regardless of whether or not you’ve gone through the criminal justice system. For individuals whose addiction directly or indirectly leads to their imprisonment, the road to recovery after incarceration is even steeper.” Menendez said. “We cannot incarcerate our way out of this challenge.”
Menendez also noted the $6 billion in federal opioid funding allocated by the U.S. Senate and said he will fight in Washington, D.C. to secure as much of that money as possible to bring to New Jersey and support re-entry programs like the NJRC.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal also spoke at the conference and announced he will be rolling out an expanded version of his Bergen County Operation Helping Hand initiative to an additional six counties. Under the program, police arrested low-level heroin users and channeled them into a detox program at a medical facility before pairing them with recovery coaches and specialists in the prosecutor’s office.
Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) has also authored a plan to reform the state parole system and integrate re-entry services and rehab programs. The bill, S-761, was approved by the Senate Budget Committee last month.
Republican support for McGreevey program
Re-entry programs are not simply a Democratic issue. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) issued a statement condemning Murphy’s budget cuts to the NJRC.
“Governor McGreevey’s reentry program has been an incredible success and should receive funding from the legislature,” he wrote. “A business in my district was saved because it found new employees from the program. My son serves as a volunteer lawyer for this important entity and I am proud to support the funding. This second chance program is important to both the people in the program and the business community.”
In other states that are battling the opioid crisis, treating addiction in prisons and jails has proven effective. New Jersey prison reform and re-entry advocates like those at the NJRC are looking to these states to determine where resources in the state could be better integrated. Rhode Island, in particular has seen staggering results. Over a year ago, Rhode Island began providing inmates full access to three medications for opioid addiction — buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone — which experts have called “the gold standard of care” for opioid addiction. It is unique in this approach as no other state prison system provides the same type of access to all three medications, with many providing no medication treatment at all. Since then, overdose deaths among returning prisoners in Rhode Island fell by 60 percent and overall opioid overdose deaths fell by 12 percent in the state. Overdose deaths among released inmates was cut by more than half, according to a recent study.
Opioid intervention court
Brad Brockmann executive director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence, Rhode Island emphasized the need to offer long-range assistance to those battling addiction in and out of prison. “Relapse is part of the diagnosis,” Brockmann said. “We need to continue to support individuals after their release.”
Buffalo, New York, which started the nation’s first opioid intervention court, is also being looked at as a model for other states, including New Jersey. The system there works like a traditional drug court in that addicts who are nonviolent offenders are led into a recovery program as an alternative to prison time and are often given reduced sentences because of seeking help. Inmates are closely monitored, required to take multiple drug tests, and must check in with a judge throughout their recovery.
Gale Burstein, health commissioner of Erie County, New York, said at the conference, the key to a successful recovery program is an integrated system involving collaboration with “unusual bedfellows” like healthcare providers and prosecutors. She added that, since implementing a medication assisted treatment program, recidivism rates in Buffalo have been steadily decreasing — a sign that individuals are likely having more success integrating back into the community.
For Rich Wilder in New Jersey, access to treatment in prison and a robust system of community support after release, along with job training, helps keep him on track to a sustained recovery. He said he hopes re-entry programs like the one offered by the NJRC become more common in the state.
“I think we all need to put our differences aside and work as a community together to save one life at a time,” Wilder said. “Addiction is a major problem. It’s at everyone’s door and everyone’s neighborhood.”