Mississippians who find themselves facing charges for crimes related to opioid drug addiction may find drug court offers treatment and accountability instead of just jail time. In the final part of our three part series, "Opioids in Mississippi: The Silent Epidemic," we look at one program that's rebuilding lives.
It's a Thursday morning at the Warren County Drug Court in Vicksburg. Seventeen people are waiting to go before the judge.
"You have a 180 drug and alcohol free certificate. Congratulations," said Judge Patrick.
Circuit Court Judge Isadore Patrick is giving out certificates to participants who've been drug free from 30 days up to 2 1/2 half years.
"That means something. That's an achievement that they should feel proud of and I tell them that. If it's not but 30 days, that's 30 days you weren't using drugs," said Patrick.
Judge Patrick says drug courts differ from county to county. This voluntary program targets those who have a severe drug problem, commit a felony crime, but are non-violent. Drug dealers can't participate. Kathy, which isn't her real name, was a nurse for ten years. She became addicted to Norco a combination of Hydrocodone and Tylenol she took after sinus surgery. The 33-year old found the pills also helped her cope with a new baby and separating from her husband.
"It totally numbed any emotion I had. Good or bad. I mean I was just kinda there, you know. I had no emotion. I walked through life like a zombie. It was horrible," said Kathy.
Kathy says she doctor-shopped at work until they figured out she was addicted to Norco and told her to go to rehab. Instead Kathy stole drugs from the homes of friends until she was caught.
"Fact of the matter was I was guilty. I knew I was guilty. At the time I thought it was the worst thing in the world that could have happened to me. Looking back a year down the road, I see now it was the best thing that could have happened to me," said Kathy.
Facing a charge of prescription acquired by fraud, Kathy chose drug court over jail. She's spent 90 days in treatment and follows the rules. If she continues to do so, the charge will be expunged from her record. Maryam Husband is the Warren County Drug Court Coordinator. She says there are currently 94 people in the program. Participants seek help themselves or are referred by the courts.
"It's a minimum of two years and a maximum of five years," said Husband.
Husband says treatment comes first. Often people are using more than one drug.
"They usually go into an inpatient treatment, 30 to 90 days. Once they complete treatment they come back in our court system and they start seeing the judge regularly. Taking regular drug tests," said Husband.
In the Warren County program, drug tests are required at least three times a week and there are penalties for a positive result or a "hot test." Participants must attend recovery meetings five days per week. Clients who relapse have to pay for treatment. Thirty-year old Virginia has relapsed several times struggling with an addiction to Dilaudid, an opioid pain pill.
"Whenever my mom and dad pressed charges on me for the uttering forgery charge to plead into drug court was a wake-up call. But still again, it wasn't a wake-up call until this past time in August, whenever I caught another charge," said Virginia.
That charge was burglary in August of last year. Virginia has since graduated from the Warren County Drug Court. She says the structure of the program helped her stay clean.
"Well having the accountability of my drug court officers and knowing that I have random drug tests and knowing that my son is waiting on me whenever I get home is good enough," said Virginia.
Two young men are here in the Warren County Drug Court wearing orange jump suits because they didn't show up for drug tests. Judge Patrick sends the pair to jail for 48 hours. If they fail to comply with the rules they could be kicked-out of the program. The judge asked the mother of one of the young men to be in court this morning to stress the consequences her son may face.
"I did that for a purpose. We have to have a good support system in the program. By that I mean the parents, the sister, mother, sister, brother, they have to know where you are, what kind of program you're in, and they can support you in that," said Patrick.
Judge Patrick and court coordinator Maryam Husband meet weekly with representatives from law enforcement, the district attorney's office, treatment facilities and a doctor who provides free examinations. They discuss how each client is progressing, address violations and review requests for potential participants. Judge Patrick says their input is invaluable in keeping clients on track.
"What we're trying to do is return them to the community so they can be viable citizens, taxpayers, earn a living, back to their families and for the most part it has worked," said Patrick.
Two thirds of the clients in the Warren County Drug Court complete the program. Kathy, the former nurse, is looking forward to graduating from the program next year in a ceremony, with family and friends watching.
"I know a lot of people think drug court is a horrible thing and yes there are a lot of requirements. But we got ourselves here and I would tell anybody to look at it as a second chance because you could be sitting in prison. It can help you stay somber if you want it to," said Molly.
And that's the challenge for people like Kathy:making the commitment to stay clean and using the tools learned in treatment to face the hurdles in life.
If you'd like more information about opioid treatment call the Mississippi Department of Mental Health at:1- 877-210-8513. To hear all three reports in this series, "Opioids in Mississippi: the Silent Epidemic," type opioids in the search bar.