Law & Justice

Ex-prisoner reentry aid organization spotlights healthcare, addiction issues

7b78f718b2c00e4bdefe_2017_10_05_RoundtableDiscussion_03-1200x800.jpg
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
6e46bcaa1c426b63653d_2017_10_05_RoundtableDiscussion_05-1200x800.jpg
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
d1c01cebb762aadfb4bf_2017_10_05_RoundtableDiscussion_21-1200x800.jpg
Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the non-profit New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC). Credits: Stefanie Campolo
c92ad3e4a145350d9009_2017_10_05_RoundtableDiscussion_221200x800.jpg
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
1942b2647c19a802836d_2017_10_05_RoundtableDiscussion_05b-1200x800.jpg
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
7b78f718b2c00e4bdefe_2017_10_05_RoundtableDiscussion_03-1200x800.jpg

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."

Sign Up for E-News

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." 

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Newark

McGovern's summer renovation closing party celebrates change

June 16, 2018

It always takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust when you walk into McGovern's Tavern in Newark, a downtown fixture since 1936.

But this Friday afternoon, there were two immediate sights that demonstrated something was different.

First, most of the photos, portraits, and articles that cover the bar's walls were removed, the relics of decades of history gone.

Second, you ...

Newark men honored for serving as role models by the Marion P. Thomas Charter School Foundation

June 11, 2018

Newark, NJ—Three local men and one corporation received awards from the Marion P. Thomas Charter School (MPTCS) Foundation at its annual “Fathers for our Children” Awards Ceremony and Scholarship Fundraiser.

This year’s award recipients are Modia "Mo" Butler, political strategist; the late Dr. Fabian Rice of RWJ/ Barnabas Health’s ...

Essex County Undersheriff Kevin Ryan dies

June 20, 2018

Kevin Ryan, a former Assemblyman from Nutley who served as an Essex County Undersheriff, has died.

Ryan, 49, served for nearly two decades in the Essex County Sheriff's Office, rising to the rank of undersheriff. He also served a year beginning in January 2011 as State Assemblyman before redistricting changes.  

Ryan was a close confidante of Essex County Sheriff ...

50 years after RFK assassination, the NBHS band’s moment is remembered

June 7, 2018

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - On a warm June day in 1968, 40 members of the New Brunswick High School band stood on the city train platform playing solemn hymns.

It was supposed to be a one-hour performance as they waited the train traveling from New York to Washington, carrying the body of a slain presidential candidate, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

But one-hour dragged into two, and then three, as ...

Got junk? Rutgers students do

June 1, 2018

NEW BRUNSWICK - On a thin tripod of supports, the black charcoal grill sat on top of love seat that was half on the street, half on the curb, outside a Delafield Street apartment.

As the college year ends, and this generation of Rutgers students empty out of apartments, their well-used but now discarded remains line city curbs, and sometimes spill into ...

Hearing Loss Common in School-Aged Children

May 30, 2018

With close to 15% of U.S. children ages 6–19 experiencing hearing loss, New Jersey Speech-Language-Hearing Association (NJSHA) notes that May Is Better Hearing & Speech Month is the ideal time for parents to learn more about the sometimes-subtle signs of hearing loss, ways it can affect school-aged children, and where to find help.

“Some children are born ...

Ensure Safe Sleep While Traveling with Baby

June 6, 2018

As we approach the summer, there will be plenty of expected travel for families, from visiting grandma at the beach to heading out on a long, well-deserved vacation. 

When staying overnight at a friend’s or family’s place, it is important to maintain the same sleep practices as you do at home. Your baby should be sleeping in a safe, modern crib that meets the latest ...