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November 1, 2014

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New approach to keeping people off drugs, out of jail resonating with inmates

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Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun

Chelle Reed conducts a substance-abuse class at Clark County Detention Center. The program has become popular with inmates and has a growing waiting list for the weekly meetings that focus on developing positive personal goals and avoiding the cycle of negative consequences.

Substance Abuse Class at Clark County Detention Center

An inspirational quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson is written on a dry erase board inside a classroom used to house weekly substance abuse and anger management classes for inmates inside the Clark County Detention Center. Launch slideshow »

Pencils in hand, the inmates gaze up and down, racking their brains for the best answers before jotting them down on paper. Ten boxes need words. There are no right or wrong answers.

“What is it that gives you a reason to get up in the morning?” instructor Chelle Reed prompts. “What is it that gives you a reason to keep breathing, to not go back to your cell and hang yourself? What is it that gives you a reason to get out of here and not come back?”

The 18 men ponder the questions in a Clark County Detention Center classroom. They are here by choice — sort of.

Bad decisions have landed them in jail, but now that they’re here, they have voluntarily enrolled in the detention center’s new substance abuse program, a set of eight classes that jail officials hope will nudge them on the right path post-release and shave five days off their sentences.

The program, which debuted as a pilot in November, is popular among male and female inmates; it has a months-long waiting list, said Officer Kevin Kegley, the jail's director of programs. Inmates serving time at CCDC for nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses are eligible to enroll.

In the small classroom, they steer clear of war stories. It’s not about who has the worst drug-related tale or who has tried the most illicit substances. Corrections officers and instructors know many of the inmates are all-too-familiar with drugs, so the program takes a different approach.

“With drugs, it doesn’t just affect the person,” Kegley said. “It affects the family, your kids, your mom, your dad, your community around you. Actually trying to show the inmates that what they’re doing has a bigger impact (on those around them) is an important part of it.”

That’s why Reed, a former drug user who now operates a nonprofit called McReed Ministries, makes the men write down the list of things that are most important to them.

She asks them to share an answer. Without hesitation, they shout, “Family!”

Then comes the hard part: Reed asks the inmates to give up one of the items they consider most important to them one by one. By the fifth round, the exercise agitates an inmate sitting on the right side of the classroom.

“Hey, I’m on my last six that I can’t give up!” he says.

A few minutes later, he’s even more desperate.

“I can’t give up my wife, daughter and my home!” he shouts.

Reed’s exercise has worked. It triggered the emotions she had hoped to see — and without her lecturing even once the men about their prior drug or alcohol use.

Instead, she levels with them: “I would guess the simple fact that you’re in here sitting in one of these chairs right now has already cost you something on that list — at least one thing, if not more. And every time you come back, the price gets a little higher and costs you a little more.”

The men let out a collective “mm hmm.”

If inmates attend all eight classes and complete their homework, their release date is moved up five days. The course, paid for by inmate commissary funds, also encourages participants to form concrete plans for how they'll resist temptation upon release, Reed said.

Kegley and Reed can’t recall any inmates who have reappeared in jail after finishing the program and leaving jail. The recidivism rate tied to the course isn’t known, but Todd Laird, a corrections officer who helped launch the program after hearing about a similar successful one in Washoe County, said he would like interns from UNLV’s behavioral sciences program to research its long-term effects on inmates.

Another benefit: Laird said the program helps fix an ongoing logistical problem — jail overcrowding. As of last week, CCDC housed 3,945 inmates, but the average jail population exceeded 4,000 last month.

“We’re just trying to break the cycle,” Laird said. “And if we break the cycle and keep them out of custody, that’s a win for us.”

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