Addicted and incarcerated: For decades, the criminal justice system has failed to treat substance abuse disorders among inmates. Routt County is working to change that.

Three-quarters of inmates in Colorado’s prisons are addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to a 2017 report from the state’s Department of Corrections. For the past year, the Routt County Jail has implemented a wide range of initiatives to help inmates become productive members of society, which appear to be working.
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the supervisor of the Routt County Jail, Lt. Joseph Boyle has his finger on the pulse, so to speak, of local incarceration.

In recent years, he has noticed a troubling trend among the inmates who pass handcuffed through the jail doors. 

“I have started seeing younger and younger people coming in with needle tracks on their arms,” Boyle said. 

It is not just the age, but also the sheer number of inmates who enter jails with a substance use disorder that concerns him.

“I am watching firsthand the increase in drug use in our county,” he said.

A statewide problem

While the state does not collect data on the health of inmates in 64 county jails, a 2017 report from the Colorado Department of Corrections found that about three-quarters of inmates enter state prisons addicted to drugs or alcohol.

This comes as local law enforcement officials have seen a rise in the prevalence of illicit drugs in Routt County, namely opioids and methamphetamine. As Boyle explained, the epidemic has thrown his agency on the front lines of a public health crisis they are ill-equipped to handle. 

“We’re not psychologists or counselors, but we are being forced to be,” he said.

For the past three months, he has spearheaded a new initiative to screen inmates for addiction when they enter the jail and to provide them with opportunities to receive treatment in the form of substance abuse-specific therapy and meditation.

These efforts are in addition to an existing medication-assisted treatment program, which helps addicts cope with withdrawal symptoms.

In many cases, addicts who do not receive adequate treatment descend into a downward spiral that ends either in a continuous cycle of incarceration or death.

During the Substance Use Prevention and Recovery seminar, held at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs in June, Police Chief Cory Christensen presented footage from one of his officer’s body cameras from 2017.

The video showed the officer using Narcan, the brand-name, nasal-spray version of naloxone, to resuscitate a man who overdosed on heroin. In this case, the opioid antidote worked, but outcomes are not always so fortunate. According to data he received from the Routt County Coroner’s Office, 19 people have died from an overdose in the area since 2015.

“Our rate is way high compared to other places,” he told the crowd, pointing to a rise in heroin, and most recently meth, as the driving forces. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

Breaking the cycle of incarceration

When addicts end up in the prison system, it often perpetuates and even exacerbates their substance use problem, which psychologists tend to treat as a disease rather than a crime.

Until recently, Boyle described the fate of addicts in the criminal justice system like this: someone commits a crime; they go to jail; they lose their house, car and job; and then they are released without any treatment for their addiction, which led them to commit the crime in the first place.

“These people are left with virtually nothing when they get booted out,” Boyle said. “So they are going to go right back to crashing on a friend’s couch who is a bad influence for them because that’s all they have.”

As supervisor of the Routt County Jail, Lt. Joseph Boyle has found himself on the front lines of a public health crisis. To address the issue, he implemented several treatment options for inmates with substance use disorders, including group therapy and meditation sessions.
Derek Maiolo

Recidivism has an economic cost as well as a social one. Coloradans spend nearly $40,000 per prison inmate per year in taxes, according to the Department of Corrections.

Boyle, a soft-spoken man in his 30s, has made it his goal to break the cycle of incarceration among addicts. Starting in May, he recruited the help of Craig Thornhill, a licensed addiction counselor with more than 15 years of experience. 

Using about $19,000 in funds from a state-awarded grant, the jail hired Thornhill to conduct weekly substance abuse-specific therapy to Routt County inmates. He uses cognitive behaviorial therapy to give people the internal motivation to change their behavior. 

Thornhill focuses on their response to “trigger” factors that lead a person to use drugs, such as stress or being around friends who use them.

“I was triggered, therefore I got anxious, therefore I used (drugs) to make that go away,” he explained of the process.

By teaching patients how to respond to triggers in a healthier way, such as exercising or avoiding them in the first place, Thornhill aims to form healthier habits and break harmful ones.

Thornhill has offered similar services in the Moffat County Jail, where about half of inmates who receive counseling continue treatment following their release. The state, which also helped fund those initiatives, wants to see that rate rise to 75 to 80%.

At the end of July, Thornhill compiled a three-month report on his counseling services in the Routt County Jail, with optimistic results.

His weekly individual and group therapy sessions are voluntary, but thus far, seven inmates — all men — have participated. The jail houses anywhere from 20 to 30 inmates at a given time, according to Boyle. 

Of those seven, three have been released back into the community, Thornhill said. 

“All of the people who have been released have some level of community aftercare support and seem to be doing well with maintaining sobriety and not getting rearrested,” Thornhill said. 

Funding future initiatives and getting community support

The therapy program is in its early stages, and his contract with the county ends in December, but Thornhill hopes to recruit more inmates into treatment, particularly women. 

Boyle also has been offering meditation sessions at the jail each week, an idea inspired by his mother, a Buddhist chaplain. The approach uses a similar logic to Thornhill, teaching a healthy way to cope with drug and alcohol cravings. 

“My hope is when someone is stressed out, instead of drinking or scoring some heroin, they can meditate and the feeling will pass,” Boyle said. 

While some may see such methods as unconventional, it represents a broader shift in the criminal justice system toward more holistic treatments for incarcerated individuals.

“Particularly in this jurisdiction, the primary goal of criminal justice intervention is to change behavior,” said District Attorney Matt Karzen, who supports Boyle’s efforts. 

As Routt County’s DA, a position he rose to in June, Karzen has sought to balance public safety with human decency.

“Anything that helps an offender rehabilitate and at the same time ensures the victim is treated with dignity and respect is absolutely a good idea,” he said. 

The largest challenge, Boyle said, has been finding enough qualified professionals to provide the programs and treatments to meet the needs of inmates.

“It can’t just be the jail handling all of this,” he said. “We need different moving parts in the community.”

For 2020, the Colorado Department of Human Services allocated $84,767 to continue jail-based behavioral services, including addiction treatment. 

In the future, Boyle wants to build onto the existing rehabilitation initiatives and gain more community support. To that end, he would like to revitalize efforts to connect inmates with employment opportunities upon their release. 

“My whole goal is to set people up for success, to give them the confidence to be a good member of the community and build their lives to be successful,” Boyle said.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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