Acupuncture program for jail addicts suspended State plans to revive it with new contractor, stricter guidelines

September 21, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

A highly praised acupuncture treatment program for drug-addicted women inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center ended last week, amid state concerns over its effectiveness.

The decision not to renew the contract for Johns Hopkins Hospital to run the program was surprising, especially considering how state officials had praised the nationally known venture.

Just a year ago, officials called the first acupuncture treatment program behind bars in the nation a key step in helping incarcerated addicts quit drugs. Some 85 percent of detention center inmates are drug or alcohol abusers, officials say.

"It was not working nearly as well as we thought it should, and it was not holding [inmates] accountable once they left the jail," said Adam Gelb, senior policy adviser to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a key supporter of the pilot program.

However, Mary E. McCaul, a Johns Hopkins Hospital psychologist and program director, disagrees. "We feel that we have met and even exceeded the conditions set forth" by the state, she said.

Last October, at a jail ceremony highlighting the then 2-year-old program, state officials lauded it as being so successful that the jail soon would begin offering it to male inmates as well.

Now plans are for the women's program to resume under a new contractor and a men's program to begin this year, state officials said.

State officials say there's no contradiction between last year's statements and plans now to restructure the program and sign a new contractor.

"We think it's a good program but we wanted it to be better. The new program will ensure that we're not spinning our wheels -- we're going to hold the women accountable once they leave the jail," Gelb said.

Acupuncture, an ancient Asian therapy, is being used regularly around the country to help people overcome drug addictions.

After completing the two-week program in jail, some inmates were released early.

Participating women lived together in a jail dormitory to encourage them to support each other. Once they left the jail, they were urged to enroll in similar programs at several sites around the city.

Early results suggested that program participants were less likely to return to jail after release.

"That study was done over such a short period of time, I question the validity of the data," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services.

Flanagan, a longtime proponent of acupuncture, pushed for it after reading about a similar program that had been successful in New York City.

The state commissioned an evaluation of the program, but it was never completed.

Even without a study, it was clear the program was not working as it should, Flanagan and Gelb say.

Under the revised program, former inmates who have completed the program and are found to be using drugs will face penalties ranging from home detention to a return to jail, Flanagan said.

McCaul says freed inmates were penalized if they violated agreements for their release; some were returned to jail. However, she said more money was required to hire staff to monitor them and provide after-care for all of them.

Flanagan said clinical and public safety concerns collided in meetings between government officials and McCaul to revise the program. For example, he said McCaul opposed giving results of urine tests of former inmates to public safety officials.

McCaul wouldn't address such specific issues, saying: "We've been in the trenches now with this program for several years, and we've learned a lot of lessons about what works.

"I'm not sure those lessons are being taken into account in the recommended redesign of this program."

The state plans to contract with a new provider and start the program again by mid-November, Flanagan said.

Among those disappointed with the program's suspension were several judges, including Baltimore District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey.

"This was an efficient, effective program that served an underserved population. When that type of program is discontinued, it's a loss to everyone," she said.

Federal and state funds and a grant from Baltimore-based Abell Foundation paid for the in-jail program's first four years that ended June 30. It provided six hours of counseling, education and acupuncture daily for two weeks. Acupuncturists from Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia provide the 45-minute treatments five days a week at the jail.

Federal money will fund the program when it resumes, Gelb said.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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