CONTRA COSTA COUNTY—A recovered addict turned grassroots organizer is leading a collaboration to fix an issue that runs deeper than containing coronavirus in Contra Costa County jail facilities – the lack of treatment options for addicts.
Support4Recovery co-founder Tom Aswad has drawn together representatives of the county’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Services (AODS), the Sheriff’s Department, Superior Court and other local officials’ offices.
Medically assisted treatment is currently available in county detention centers only for those with opiate addictions.
“We pretty much just need treatment for those seeking it and an engagement process for those who are not ready,” Aswad said.
Aswad began the project after hearing Martin Ramirez’s story at a celebration for those who had completed the transition to sobriety last year. Aswad emailed his “go-to” list of supporters: Judge Clare Maier, Superintendent of Schools Lynn Mackey, Chris Wikler of Supervisor Karen Mitchoff’s office and Jill Ray of Supervisor Candace Andersen’s office. A month and a half later, the representatives and several other interested parties met to discuss the main goals of the new task force: treatments such as withdrawal management for those detoxing, education in the jails and warm handoffs.
A warm handoff, Maier explained, is having an addict in recovery show up to greet the individual at jail release to drive them to a residential treatment program that fits the individual’s needs.
“Providing that ride, that drive to the facility, helps with the checkin process,” Maier said, noting that a large number of releases fail to arrive at their referred housing. “This exponentially increases the likelihood not only of that person getting to the program, but succeeding in it. It’s a commitment to that person’s recovery from an outside party.”
One prisoner’s journey
Aswad said he was “shocked” when he heard about Ramirez, who was released from the West County Detention Center in Richmond in September 2017 with a referral to a residential treatment program handed to him by an attorney –the only person who had visited him to speak about kicking his addiction to methamphetamine.
“One of the problems in this community is that there is not information about the solutions, about (nearby) treatment – especially in Northern California,” Martinez said through a translator. “There is a lot of stuff in English, but let’s say you bring in pamphlets (in other languages) somebody can read … that’s another way.”
Because Ramirez was jailed before AODS substance abuse counselors were allowed behind prison walls in 2019, he was not assessed for eligibility to take classes about meth and other drugs. He went through withdrawals, cravings and subsequent side effects on his own.
AODS counselor Antonia Fernandez highlighted why custody is the perfect time to approach addicts about getting better.
“They are already sitting still and have some type of motivation (to recover),” she said. “We can then tap into that willingness, that motivation, and plan with them.”
Ramirez considers himself one of the lucky ones; his three-month program at Pueblos Del Sol in Concord is the only recovery home for Spanish speakers in the county. His translator, Pablo Martinez, said the waiting list is always long.
On Sept. 21, Ramirez will have been clean for three years.
After battling his own addiction and beating it in a 28-day program at Mt. Diablo Hospital in 1991, Aswad spent time approaching politicians at state and federal levels about problems like a lack of adolescent treatment funding and limited recovery houses in Contra Costa County. Aswad and colleagues Judy Bastin and Amy Alanes established Support4Recovery in 2007 with the mission of being the voice of the recovery community in Contra Costa County.
Through housing arrangements, services for treatment residents and house managers and a post-treatment support group, Support4Recovery’s board and volunteers aim to listen to the needs of alcohol and other drug addicts and their families to “educate and empower our community and thus promote successful long-term recovery,” according to the nonprofit’s website.
Meanwhile, the new task force on jail treatment options is still presenting ideas. While the path ahead is long, Maier said the group has made notable progress. The promise of humanizing addicts in detention through meeting them where they are drives the effort beyond roadblocks caused by the unexpected virus or the long-existing lack of county funding.
“If you’re sick because you have a headache, they treat you,” AODS chief Fatima Matal Sol said, adding that Contra Costa County is the only county in the region without treatment programming for the incarcerated. “If you have a heart condition, you get fast-tracked. If you go into a jail with a substance abuse disorder, you don’t get the same treatment. … It’s part of the societal concept of criminalizing addictions.”