Kentucky opens first sober-living unit in a medium-security prison anywhere, with plans to open others across the state

SOAR’s logo was designed and painted by one of the program participants. (Photo by Melissa Patrick, Kentucky Health News)
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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

BURGIN, Ky. – Kentucky again leads in ways to deal with drug abuse, this time with a pilot program that provides aftercare for prisoners who have gone through drug treatment but are still serving time.

Supporting Others in Active Recovery (SOAR) allows inmates who have completed an addiction treatment program – and meet some other requirements – to live in a dorm that is committed to sober living while they complete their sentences.

“This is the best program I’ve been in,” said Gevoyl Beauchamp, an inmate who has been in the program since it opened in April.

The six-month program at Northpoint Training Center, a medium-security prison near Burgin, has room for 88 participants. Inmates who have completed the program can request to stay in it.

“The important part of this is keeping them in that therapeutic community instead of being released back into the general [prison] population where there is less of a mindset for recovery,” Northpoint Warden Brad Adams told Kentucky Health News.

Michael Reynolds, one of the participants, said being part of SOAR has allowed him to participate in programs that will help him live a sober life after he is released, such as those that teach life skills or employment “soft skills” and ones that focus on parenting or anger management.

“I’m looking for a change in my life,” he said.

State Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley told nearly 50 people at a July 9 news conference to announce the program that the plan is to “work the kinks out of it and take it to scale.”

“It doesn’t look at treatment as some 28-day program or some six-month program, or even a year-long program,” Tilley said. “It looks at it like a life-long commitment to clean and sober living.”

The pilot is funded in part by a $300,000 grant from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. Tilley said funding for the expansion of the program has not yet been secured.

“For every dollar we spend, the state recovers roughly three to four dollars,” Tilley said. “So I’m going to continue to ask the legislature for more money. I’m going to continue to chase every federal grant dollar that we can chase, because this is a good use of taxpayer dollars. This is what will help us dig out of this.”

Secretary John Tilley talks to inmates at Northpoint Training
Center at the announcement. (Photo by Melissa Patrick)

The need for such programs in Kentucky is great, Tilley said, because Kentucky ranks in the top 10 states for per-capita incarceration, with 24,000 people in the system, and 48,000 on supervision.

Tilley added that prosecutors tell him that 95 percent of their cases are related to addiction. Further, he said that by some measures it is estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of people in the corrections system need substance-abuse treatment.

In 2017, 1,565 people died in Kentucky from a drug overdose. Tilley, saying he was speaking “cautiously,” said he sees a light at the end of the tunnel because this number is coming down.

“The good news is that Kentucky is leading the way in drug policy,” Tilley said. “We’ve had to be the leader. We’ve had to put political differences aside to innovate because the problem is so acute here.”

Tilley noted that Kentucky was the first state to limit prescription opioids to three days for acute pain, and the first to mandate monitoring of prescriptions. It leads the nation in its number of syringe exchange programs, with 58 sites operating in 51 counties as of June 5.

The justice secretary has long called for a public-health approach, not a criminal-justice approach, when it comes to addiction, which has been proven to be a chronic brain disorder.

“But until policymakers build an infrastructure that allows us to do that in this country, in this state, we’ll continue to have to give it our best effort in corrections – and this represents our best effort,” he said. He added later, “This is a public-health epidemic; it is not a corrections epidemic. Its impact is in the criminal-justice system.”

Tilley, a Democrat, was appointed justice secretary in December 2015 by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. He had been a state representative from Hopkinsville and was instrumental in passing Kentucky’s 2015 anti-heroin bill. Among other things, the bill created a system in which local officials could allow syringe exchanges; increased penalties for high-volume traffickers; allocated money for drug treatment; and let the Department of Corrections medicate inmates for opioid-use disorders.