Law & Justice

Ex-prisoner reentry aid organization spotlights healthcare, addiction issues

Regional Director Dennis González, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (left), and Newark native Rasheed Williams, chief of staff to Assistant Secretary for Administration John Bardis. Credits: Stefanie Campolo
Members of a program sponsored by the non-profit New Jersey Reentry Corporation listen to a discussion at a recent conference focused on the healthcare problems of ex-offenders. Credits: Stefanie Campolo
Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the non-profit New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC). Credits: Stefanie Campolo
Brian Johnston, a recovering drug addict and ex-offender, talks about how he hopes to overcome his problems at a recent meeting that examined the healthcare concerns of those reentering society. Credits: Stefanie Campolo
Dr. Tanya Pagán Raggio-Ashley, senior medical officer with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Regional Operations for Region 2. Credits: Stefanie Campolo

Brian Johnston has been on a rough road for years. Addiction to OxyContin, at first prescribed for an injury, mutated into an endless narcotic need that led to heroin and jail. Now Johnston is committing not to heroin, but to hope. 

"I'm trying to get my life together after addiction took everything," said Johnston, 36, a resident of Integrity House in Secaucus, a non-profit rehabilitation organization which also has a center in Newark that works with drug-and alcohol-addicted ex-criminal offenders who are trying to reintegrate into society. "I've been sober for a year, and I'm trying to get back into the workforce and raise my family."

"But the fentanyl problem is terrible. People are dying left and right," added Johnston, referring to the powerful, synthetic opioid pain medication that is approximately 50 times stronger than heroin. "I think that everyone who has been addicted knows somebody who has died from fentanyl."

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Johnston spoke out at a recent conference in Jersey City of former prisoners, healthcare professionals, medical experts and government officials, sponsored by the non-profit New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), all seeking solutions to the considerable healthcare concerns ex-prisoners contend with as they reenter their communities. 

Approximately 12 million people are released from American jails every year. According to a 2016 Release Outcome Report of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC), the State Parole Board, and the Juvenile Justice Commission, more than 10,000 prisoners were released from New Jersey correctional facilities in 2011.

While addiction issues are high on the list of the health issues faced by ex-prisoners, those reentering society also often deal with a higher rate of suffering from infectious diseases and mental illnesses. 

One approach to facing the fentanyl problem, as well as other forms of opioid addiction, is known as medication assisted treatment (MAT).

MAT advocates the use of medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies for the treatment of substance use disorders. A combination of medication and behavioral therapies can be effective in the treatment of substance use disorders, and can help some people to sustain recovery.

"Most addicts when they wake up in the morning, particularly those seeking treatment, are just looking to feel normal," said Jeffrey Berman, M.D., DFASAM, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "These medications allow patients to not have cravings, and they also have a role in detoxification. When you talk and establish a relationship with the people in recovery, and they know that they are not going to suffer physically, you have a better chance of engaging them and keeping them in treatment." 

Dr. Deven Unadkat, D.O., the chair of emergency medicine at Jersey City Medical Center, also noted the effectiveness of Narcan, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in the case of an overdose. Police in some municipalities already carry Narcan to administer to drug addicts that suffer an overdose.

"When a peer patient talks to someone right after their life was saved, they can say to them 'You were dead. You're not dead now,'" said Unadkat, who previously worked in Newark. "That hits home."

Dr. Spartaco Bellomo, M.D., an infectious disease and internal medicine specialist who has been in practice for 39 years, working in both Newark and Jersey City, noted how infectious diseases also pose a serious and ongoing threat to reentering individuals, particularly those from poorer communities. 

"To get Hepatitis C medication to some of my patients requires my staff to work 24 hours a day," Bellomo said. "And I'm going to need to see these patients every six months to make sure that there is no cirrhosis or cancer down the line." 

There were New Jersey government representatives from both sides of the political aisle at the meeting. Erica Daughtrey, communications director for U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8), whose district includes parts of Newark, was present. So was Commissioner Beth Connolly of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, representing the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie. 

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the NJRC, said that his organization was grateful to be working with the incoming administration of Governor-elect Phil Murphy to provide healthcare and workforce opportunities for reentry clients. 

McGreevey also noted that Matthew Platkin, Murphy's main policy advisor during the gubernatorial campaign, now slated to be Murphy's chief counsel, has attended several recent NJRC meetings. 

"Prison and addiction lead only to death," McGreevey said. "Reentry is the alternative path to a healthy life."

Rasheed Williams, chief of staff to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Administration John Bardis, began his life in Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. 

Williams graduated from Peshine Avenue School and Weequahic High School in the city's South Ward before starting his government career after earning his degree from Delaware State University. 

What Williams saw growing up on Brick City's streets help fuel his fervor for federal service.

"I get an opportunity to give back to the community that birthed me," said Williams, 41. "It gives me an opportunity to see things not just at the ground level, but to work with people who have an opportunity to change." 

Williams' boss backed up his words. 

"I admire you guys for what you're dealing with, and how you're dealing with it. It takes courage to be here," Bardis said. "Remember that God has a plan for your life, and nothing can separate you from the love of God. These are the people whose faces reflect that love. And it's our responsibility to do everything we can for you."

Demond Reed has struggled with heroin addiction for years. He lost his best friend to a fentanyl overdose. Now looking for a job, Reed wants to be responsible for himself as he builds a new life. 

"I need work. I want to be a productive member of society,"  said Reed, 46, of Jersey City. "I want to be a better father to my kids, and a better son to my family. Beating heroin will help me do all of that."

As for Brian Johnston, he knows his road to reentry still stretches before him. But before going back to that work, he called for the experts and officials around him to not just make policy talk, but to truly help him make his walk all the way back to a full, drug-free life. 

"You guys have talked a lot, but the key word is talk," Johnston said. "I want to see some action." 

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