By David Cruz
It was an intimate roundtable held in front of a room full of onlookers, pretty typical for how the governor has approached the big-ticket policy initiative of his final nine months in office. Today, just over a year after he announced that it would re-open as a treatment facility for inmates with substance use disorder, Gov. Chris Christie was at Mid-State Correctional Facility as the final touches were being applied, sounding very much like the chairman of a national commission on substance abuse awareness.
“I’ve met a lot of addicts now over the course of my life and I’ve very rarely met one that says, ‘I’m ready.’ It’s other circumstances that drive them to the moment and while they have that moment of crisis, which is usually when we see them, that’s when we have to try to take advantage of it, and coming in contact with the law enforcement system, the corrections systems is clearly a moment of crisis in someone’s lives. Nobody wants to be here,” Christie said.
You can say that again. Trying to kick in prison is almost impossible, as any addict will tell you, but at Mid-State Correctional, helping addicts get clean and stay clean is the primary focus of this facility. It’s a model the governor hopes could become national.
“So now we’re able to treat people that, prior to this, were incarcerated without treatment until the end when they would be going back to the community,” said New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan.
Inmates will be screened as soon as they get into the system and, if they’re shown to have substance use disorder, they will be offered treatment from outpatient to short-term and long-term residential, all administered by the Gateway Foundation, which provides substance use disorder services at six other state facilities. While officials wouldn’t let us see what renovations have been made here, counselors insist the environment is one geared to getting people the help they need without focusing on punishment.
“Working five years with the population and one year of clinical, I hear that, that all we’re doing is lock them in. But now here we are approaching it with more of a cognitive reconstruction. We’re giving them their thoughts back, giving them their family back, giving them the opportunity to actually re-approach life sober,” said Gateway Foundation Counselor Juan Rolon.
What does Christie need to see out of this facility to make it a national model?
“Over the course of time, we’re going to have to track people’s success in a program like this and compare it to what recidivism was and relapse was without people going through this program but having gone through the system. So I think there’s going to be a real, tangible way to judge this and if it’s going to become a national model sooner rather than later, then some of that will be a leap of faith, but I believe we know that treatment works. It doesn’t work 100 percent, but I think it works at a very high level and hopefully, that’s what we’ll be able to prove here,” he said.
There are currently no inmates being housed in this facility but officials say that by week’s end, the first of its 696 beds should start to fill. Then after that, as the governor said, we’ll have to wait and see.