Westmoreland County prison offers drug relapse prevention program

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With more than 85 percent of inmates at Westmoreland County Prison incarcerated directly or indirectly because of substance abuse, the prison is hoping its new relapse prevention program will reverse the trend. 

The prison will work with Westmoreland Community Action, an agency that seeks to assist the county’‍s disadvantaged populations, to begin running the course in July. 

Tim Phillips, director of community prevention services for Community Action, will lead the nine-step class for prisoners. He said keeping inmates from returning to drug use after they are discharged is cost-effective because it makes them less likely to be re-incarcerated. 

“If we could prevent people from starting, that’‍s ideal. Every dollar spent in prevention saves anywhere from $7 to $21 [in the prison system],” Mr. Phillips said. “To me, it’‍s a no-brainer.” 

The Greensburg-based organizations will enroll approximately 20 to 25 inmates in the voluntary classes, which likely will run every other week. John Walton, warden of Westmoreland County Prison, said each inmate will progress through the program at his or her own speed, but he expects each person to complete the course in four to six weeks. 

The program will cover warning signs of relapse, overdose prevention, coping strategies, recovery planning and family involvement, among other topics. Mr. Walton emphasized that the course is not a therapy session or a detoxification program. 

“The training is going to be geared to giving some strategies to cope — this is what you need to look for in your relapse, this is where you can go,” he said. “We all know that they’‍re going to relapse at some point. Most people relapse many times.

“We’‍re hoping to give them some education that will help them get through this.”

Cost estimates for the program have not been finalized, but Mr. Walton said Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission will provide funding. 

Mr. Phillips said he believes the relapse prevention program is a new idea in the Pittsburgh area. A few other local counties have contacted him to learn about the course.

“This is probably a pioneer program,” he said. 

Mr. Phillips hopes the course will decrease the revolving-door effect of inmates being re-incarcerated due to renewed substance abuse. In May, the average daily population of the jail was 601 inmates, and 42 percent of prisoners that were committed that month needed detoxification services. 

“We have a captive audience; let’‍s do something with them,” Mr. Phillips said. “Hopefully, this will give them a skill set that they‘‍ll be able to utilize upon release. We’‍re hoping that this will be a step to eliminate some of that revolving-door.” 

Mr. Phillips said he will aim to keep inmates interested so that they return to each session. 

“Sometimes people are more compliant than others,” he said. “We’‍re hoping to see some outcomes. We’‍re going to be hopefully following these folks [after they’‍re discharged] and seeing how they do.” 

More information about Westmoreland Community Action is available at www.who-inc.org. 

Marisa Iati; miati@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.

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