“What we’re really trying to do is change the culture. We’re trying to work with them so they’re not left to their own devices. It’s a culture shift.”

— Sean Lebroda, director of the new detoxification unit at the Middleton Jail

Police officers and jail workers have long been on the front lines of the struggle against the heroin and opioid addiction that continues to grip the North Shore and the country at large.

It is police officers, after all, who are arresting addicts when they are under the influence or are committing crimes to pay for their addiction. And it is jail guards who watch as addicted inmates are “spun out” — forced to withdraw, cold turkey — for a day or two before being forced to join the general jail population.

“Spinning out” an inmate rarely, if ever, helps him or her kick their addiction to opioids, meaning that once released from jail, an inmate is much likelier to relapse, then re-offend.

Fortunately, local law enforcement continues to show leadership on the issue, with the Dec. 7 opening of a 42-bed detoxification unit at the Middleton Jail. The unit, which is separate from the regular population, provides addiction treatment for non-violent offenders who have yet to be sentenced. The program accepts only willing participants who agree before a judge to take part. It is an bold experiment that deserves local support.

The idea, Sheriff Frank Cousins told reporter Paul Leighton, is to break the cycle of arrests and imprisonment that characterizes the lives of many addicts and has a ripple effect on the communities in which they live. The program is aimed at treating both drug and alcohol issues.

The opioid epidemic is as deadly as it has ever been, claiming 1,256 lives in 2014, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“It’s like a snowball over and over again,” he said. “We said, ‘We’ve got to come up with a plan that really addresses the issue. We’ve got to get them clean.’”

Recovering inmates — all non-violent offenders — are kept in a separate part of the jail that looks more like a hospital ward than a prison. Inmates sleep, eat, exercise and receive treatment during the 28-day stay. There are as many as five counseling sessions a day, not to mention one-on-one meetings with a counselor. Plans for long-term, post-release treatment are also put in place during this time.

Many inmates are eager to break the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration.

“Compared to just rotting in jail, for those of us who want to get better, they’re giving us all the tools to back it up,” said 20-year-old inmate Nik Mellett, who is addicted to heroin. “Usually the system is not that helpful. This is super helpful.”

Mellett is one of the first inmates to go through the program, which Cousins estimates can treat 500 people a year at an overall cost of $1.7 million.

Cousins has applied for a grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and hopes the state Legislature will provide more funding for the program, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

Those who feel jail is for incarceration only will likely bristle at the idea of such a forward-thinking program. We, however, agree with Cousins that the jail has a role to play in battling addiction — especially opioid addiction — and ultimately making our communities safer.

If one of the goals of incarceration is to help avoid recidivism, then Cousins’ new program is exactly what is needed. Treating an inmate’s opioid addiction (while not ignoring his crime) greatly reduces the likelihood he will commit another offense once released from jail.

Like the so-called “angel initiative” unveiled earlier this year by Gloucester police Chief Leonard Campanello, where addicts turning themselves in are steered into treatment rather than jail, Cousins’ new detoxification center is focused on fighting the problem of addiction and drug-related crime at its roots. It is also the type of leadership that is sorely needed in the battle against the opioid epidemic.

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