Local jail takes on substance abuse, a major cause of repeat crimes

Three years ago, Sean Paddock left a bar after drinking, got into his car, started driving and nearly killed someone. He was arrested and eventually served 18 months in the Suffolk County jail in Yaphank.

None of the facts of his situation - the near-miss fatality, a confrontation with police, court appearances, outpatient rehab - resonated deeply enough for Paddock, 30, to change his ways.

But he did find hope, of all places, in jail. He told his story to a crowd gathered May 18 for a ribbon-cutting of a new addiction-treatment wing in Yaphank.

 Individual jail cells can be isolating. Suffolk County, NY, is experimenting with communal cells with inmates committed to going straight.

Individual jail cells can be isolating. Suffolk County, NY, is experimenting with communal cells with inmates committed to going straight.

As a society, we are rethinking why and how we incarcerate people. We're contending with a soul-crushing rise in addiction to heroin, opioids, alcohol. Localities around the country are trying new ways to fight back and to rehabilitate people who commit crimes, but whose underlying problem is addiction.

This is Suffolk County's window into that transformation. Paddock's recovery isn't common, but it offers hope.

When he entered jail, he told the gathering, "I still had a selfish mindset." After participating in the addiction program, he realized that "a lot of my addiction was around insecurities and fears and uncomfortability with who I was as a person. I started developing gratitude in the program, and a newfound love for myself."

With his mother in the crowd, Paddock called himself a felon, but now also "a true member of society."

The program is an expansion of the drunken driving treatment that was offered at the jail for years, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said in an interview. In the past five years, the jail population has dropped dramatically, making room for a wing of the building dedicated to treatment.

The treatment program is now also offered to women, and participants are housed separately from the general population, with two 24-bed common rooms, one for each gender.

Colleen Ansanelli, a licensed social worker who runs the treatment program, said the communal rooms are a big improvement. Although the open house at the new wing was held last week, it began operating on April 15.

"Their habits are to isolate, which is fostered by the structure of a jail," Ansanelli said in an interview. "This is more of a treatment community. It's much more intimate. If somebody isn't taking their recovery seriously, the group uncovers that."

There are private rooms for one-on-one counseling, which is key to getting someone to open up. "The thing that has to change is the thinking," Ansanelli said. "We have to replace, 'I'm a loser.' "

Such cognitive behavioral therapy has become the predominant treatment for offenders in the United States and Europe, according to the National Institute of Corrections, a resource agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. Research shows that professional cognitive treatment can reduce recidivism by 25 to 35 percent, which means saving taxpayers money on incarceration.

The Suffolk program is still working out the kinks. Ansanelli had to remove four men this week and return them to the general jail population for what she termed "infecting the group with their negative thinking." Their spots will be filled quickly. The demand for treatment among the 1,270-person jail population is high. Some want to get well; others simply want to impress a judge and win an early release.

This program can't promise to turn out solid members of society, but it's better than what we've had in the past.

First published in Newsday. Anne Michaud is the Interactive Opinion Editor for Newsday.