Philip O’Hara spent 10 days at a correctional facility in 2011 for a DUI case. He says he and a fellow inmate were both addicted to opioids. After being released, he said it only took him a few hours to go right back into it.
“The moment I hit that gate, it was just like a ton of bricks. It was the first thing I did. It was like my car was on autopilot,” said O’Hara. “I went right back to where I knew I could get something and got something. This was 2011 when what I went to get was oxycontin. If it was 2018, I would get a bag of fentanyl-laced heroin and I would most likely not be having this interview.”
“If you’re behind bars, you’re most likely addicted. And if you’re addicted, you have a familiarity with the criminal justice system,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey and chair of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.
Roughly 76 percent of the people who are booked into New Jersey county correctional facilities have a substance abuse disorder, according to the Monmouth County sheriff.
“The most common cause of inmate death upon release is overdose. It’s a fact,” said Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden.
The Monmouth County Correctional Institution has substance abuse counselors on the inside for those that are incarcerated in the system. But Golden says with bail reform, which eliminated the cash bail system for most criminal offenders last year, came some gaps in the system.
“It’s made it tougher for individuals that have addiction, because again they’re here for 72 hours and being released,” Golden said.
It doesn’t give inmates a chance to detox or get the help they need. Until now. A new program called Next Step wants to fill the gap by having peer recovery specialists inside the facility to screen inmates before they’re released.
“To be able to intervene hours after their arrest, hours after they’ve sobered up. They’ve come down from their drug event that they overdosed from, and then they spend a night in jail away from their loved ones, that’s pretty impactful,” said Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni.
Even if the inmates are only there for a short period of time, they’ll also get the resources they need to give them the greatest opportunity to stay sober on the outside. They’ll be connected to programs like New Jersey Reentry Corporation which provide things like legal services, referrals to sober housing and help with finding employment.
“If someone comes into the county jail facility and is suffering from addiction we’re going to identify that person and we’re going to link that person to necessary treatment,” said McGreevey.
O’Hara says he used drugs every day for five years after he was released from the correctional facility all those years ago. He eventually overdosed on heroin in 2016, and that’s when he got himself into treatment.
“I think it definitely would have gave me a fighting chance. I can’t tell you what I would have said, but I know I would have had an opportunity that most people don’t have. And that’s the point. Some people aren’t going to be ready. I don’t know if I was ready at that point. But had I got arrested the night that I overdosed in 2016 — I didn’t get Narcan, I didn’t get arrested, I just woke up four hours later on a bathroom floor — that would have been the day that I would have accepted help,” he said.
Walking the facility’s halls again, he kept saying how lucky he was to be given the chance to turn his life around. He’s proud to be from Monmouth County on a day where they lead the state in a first of its kind recovery program.