In a concrete room at the Iberville Parish jail, about 30 inmates in orange jumpsuits huddle around circular tables, glancing up from the pages of their thick blue Alcoholics Anonymous book at a TV screen beaming a live lecture from a chemical abuse center miles away.
"Common sense will tell us, the answer is abstinence. How many of y’all have come to that conclusion after years of use?" addiction counselor Cory Woodson asks them, speaking from a live class he’s teaching at the Woodlake Addiction Recovery Center in Ethel.
The inmates nodded knowingly.
For many of them, it’s the first time they’re addressing their struggles with addiction. The Plaquemine jail recently started the program in an attempt to steer criminal offenders to sobriety.
The voluntary program allows inmates to attend classes four times a week, and lets them enroll as patients at Woodlake’s facility while their cases are pending in court.
“The jail only has them for a short time, but long enough to give them some skills even if they’re only here for four meetings,” Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said.
More than 100 inmates have entered into the course since it started three months ago, and a similar program is being offered at the jail in Lafayette. Stassi said his office plans to track their recovery after their release and note whether they stay out of the justice system.
Garrett Morales, 38, of Brusly remembers a five-year period in which he was sober, a time in his life that he clings to as a reason to stay clean. He had gotten a crane operator certification and was making good money. But after a while, he began drinking and then using meth again.
Locked up on a drug possession charge since February, Morales said the jail's program helped him come to terms with his past, despite the bruising process of having to ruminate on the times he left a trail of pain for people in his life.
"It took pain to get where I'm at today, and it took me wanting to change," he said. “And I still have to go through the consequences of my actions.”
The timing of the pilot program comes as the parish is grappling with a rise in heroin abuse, a trend Stassi and other officials fault on the wider epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.
Parish Jail Warden J.P. Edwards estimates that of the 500 or so annual drug arrests the parish sees each year, the vast majority recently have been heroin users, many of whom began with prescription opioids.
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Like many rural communities across Louisiana and the country, Iberville Parish has seen a steady rise in medical calls for legal and illegal drug overdoses, which has bogged down 911 dispatchers and tied up emergency responders.
At least 10 people died of drug overdoses last year in Iberville Parish, up from three in 2013, according to the coroner’s office.
“Something had to be done,” Edwards said. “We were just locking them up in jail and forgetting about it, but it really wasn’t solving the problem.”
The drug treatment program comes at no cost to the sheriff’s office and even extends to inmates' families outside the jail walls in some cases.
Woodlake’s clinical director, Ryan Phillips, said exposing families to treatment goes a long way in rooting out systemic substance abuse and addressing underlying factors, such as mental health or unresolved trauma, that are driving additions.
“It’s heartbreaking when you see someone come in and they want to get sober and they try but go back into a system that contributes to regression,” Phillips said.
For Mark Harris, 28, of Plaquemine, a motivation to keep to his sobriety stems from memories of his grandfather, who died at the age of 50 from liver failure after years of abusing alcohol. Several of their friends have also died from drug overdoses or their struggle managing their addictions led them to suicide.
From left, Garrett Morales and Mark Harris talk about inmates at the Iberville Parish Jail participating in a drug treatment program that allo…
"I know I have to do something," Harris said. “I think that was my turning point."
Since completing the treatment program with Morales, the two have found jobs cleaning sheriff’s office vehicles at the jail. In their free time, they hold AA meetings outside near the washboard, encouraging others to join them.
Both acknowledge their recovery is a lifelong pursuit and say more options are needed for people dealing with the vulnerable state of falling back down the same hole after serving jail time.
“All I gotta do is pick up one drink, and I'll be worse off than I've ever been. It's just that way, even after years of sobriety." Morales said. "It's life or death. There's no other option."