New addiction counseling available to inmates at Routt County Jail

Former detention deputy Michelle Richardson distributes medications to inmates inside the Routt County Jail. Inmates with substance use problems can receive medications to help treat their addictions, but a new initiative will expand rehabilitation services at the jail. Craig Thornhill, the counselor spearheading the initiative, will provide weekly counseling centered around substance use.
File photo/John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Overcoming drug addiction is hard. Overcoming drug addiction as an inmate, where mental health services and treatments are limited, can prove impossible. 

The Routt County Board of Commissioners made a major step to change that during its meeting Tuesday by implementing substance abuse-specific counseling services for the first time at the Routt County Jail. 

Craig Thornhill, a licensed professional counselor and addiction counselor, will spearhead the initiative. He has been providing the same service to Moffat County inmates and has seen a major improvement in addiction treatment as well as lower rates of recidivism.

The new therapy program allocates about $19,000, funded by a state-awarded grant as part of Colorado’s Jail Based Behavioral Services program, to pay for Thornhill’s services. 

Thornhill has more than 15 years of counseling under his belt, including more than 10 years with Mind Springs Health in Steamboat Springs and Craig.

When he introduced substance use counseling at the Moffat County Jail about two years ago, he saw a frightening reality among inmates with addiction.

About 50 inmates come through the detention center each year, according to Thornhill, many on nonviolent charges with some degree of substance use. Jailers would book them into a cell, where they eventually would suffer from drug withdrawals.

“A lot of these booking areas are almost psychiatric detox zones,” Thornhill said. 

Coming off harder drugs, such as opiates and methamphetamine, causes physical as well as mental side effects: aches, depression and thoughts of suicide, just to name a few. Worse, inmates had few resources for addiction recovery beyond a stint of medications, like Suboxone or Methadone, designed to help with cravings and withdrawals. 

When they finished their prison sentences, many inmates still had not received the treatment they needed. 

“Most of the people released with addiction were cycling back through,” Thornhill said.

Sgt. Tammy Little, who works at the Routt County Jail, has noticed a similar trend booking inmates in Steamboat.  

“You get used to seeing the same people because it’s reoccurring,” she said. 

For certain individuals with recurring drug violations, often called “frequent flyers,” law enforcement officers already know which substances the person is on before they even ask. 

Thornhill shies away from calling such people “frequent flyers” for fear it may trivialize their condition.

“They’re really frequent needers who haven’t figured out how to get their needs met,” he said.

Since implementing addiction counseling services at the Moffat County Jail, Thornhill has recorded that about half of the inmates he sees continue their treatments after their jail sentences. 

A 50% success rate is a major improvement compared to when he started, but the state wants that rate to increase to about 75 to 80%.

Expanding therapy programs for substance abuse and broader mental health issues has been a goal of Lt. Joseph Boyle since he began overseeing the Routt County Jail about a year ago.

He sees the detention center as a reflection of the broader community. The success of rehabilitation efforts is therefore a benefit to the society at large.

“We want to ensure we can provide individuals in our custody with all the support and tools necessary to set them up for success when released back into our community,” Boyle said in an email.

Success in addiction treatment has an economic impact as well as a social one. Improving rehabilitation leads to fewer inmates returning to prison after their release, which makes them productive members of their communities and saves money on recidivism.

The substance use counseling program in Routt County, as Thornhill envisions it, would look something like this: Every inmate booked into the Routt County Jail will receive a screening for substance abuse and mental health within 48 hours. Those suffering from addiction can enroll in a weekly regimen of individual and group therapy as well as receive the medication-assisted treatments the jail already provides. 

The goal of such a comprehensive approach is to create a continuum of services that meets a variety of patient needs. 

The current budget allows about six inmates to get regular addiction counseling from Thornhill, but that may increase commensurate with future needs.

Lawmakers at the state level also have been debating ways to improve and expand addiction treatment across Colorado jails. On Monday, the state’s House of Representatives gave preliminary approval for a bill that would provide alternative, treatment-focused incarceration options for people with addiction issues.

“When we incarcerate people without providing treatment for their substance use disorders, we’re not actually addressing the real problem,” Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat sponsoring the bill, said in a statement.

Commissioner Tim Corrigan voiced similar support for expanding addiction treatments among the county’s inmates at the meeting Tuesday.

“Just the medically aided treatment is not enough,” he said. “You have to get to the underlying causes.”

The grant funds Thornhill’s services through the end of the year. In that time, he will track the success of his addiction counseling to determine treatment options in the years to come.  

“It’s not easy work,” Thornhill said. “It takes an entire village, and that’s what we’re going to have.”

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