For some Knox County Jail inmates, the corrections system looks better than the world outside.

Lt. Cynthia Gardner, who heads up the jail's inmate programs and services, said at a March 17 press conference at the sheriff’s office that some inmates tell her, “I need to be here, Cynthia, because I’m gonna be found dead on the street if I’m not arrested.”

Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the anti-addiction group Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition have announced that they are working together to end that cycle by developing new re-entry services for soon-to-be-released inmates who seek them out.

Currently, resources for such inmates, many of whom struggle with addiction, are limited. Maine Pretrial Services provides some assistance, but Gardner said basic resources, such as transportation and housing assistance, are lacking. As such, getting out of jail can be a punishing experience in itself.

Chief Deputy Tim Carroll also announced that patrol officers will now begin carrying the anti-overdose drug naloxone. Also known as Narcan, the drug can bring an overdose victim back from the brink of death by blocking the effects of opioid drugs. It is often administered in the form of a nasal spray.

Carroll said surviving an overdose could be the wake-up call a drug addict needs, and gives deputies an opportunity to offer resources to send someone on the way to recovery.

Recovery coalition founder Dr. Ira Mandel has referenced a possible collaboration with the sheriff’s office at least since early last fall. The coalition is seeking grant funding for the jail re-entry project, but said participants had decided to move forward initially without spending significant sums of money.

Plans involve training mentors to work with inmates one on one. The Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast is set to train the mentors, who will be selected based on qualifications and thoroughly vetted, according to C. Patrick Mundy, a member of the MCRC board of directors who has worked as a mentor for inmates released from Maine State Prison.

Goals will include linking with local employers to provide former inmates with job opportunities, finding safe housing to foster a sober lifestyle, arranging transportation, providing temporary financial assistance and helping ex-inmates obtain assistance with physical, behavioral and substance abuse problems.

Such programs have been established in Waldo and Lincoln counties, and it is likely the Knox County re-entry program will use those projects to help inform its own.

Mandel, Mundy and Sheriff Donna Dennison cautioned that such services will not mean a 100 percent success rate. Working with inmates is complicated business, and success depends to a large extent on the inmates' own desire to change their circumstances.

“You can’t force somebody to get off drugs,” said Dennison.

While the precise recidivism rate – the rate at which former inmates return to jail – is unknown for Knox County, Dennison said it was high. Addiction plays a major role, along with an inability to meet basic needs.

With untreated addiction and a lack of available resources to create stability in a former inmate’s life, they are likely to return to old social circles, drug use and criminal activity. While possession and sale of drugs can lead to arrest, addicts also may turn to crime to sustain their habit. Mandel said at the press conference that 75 to 85 percent of previously incarcerated Americans have substance abuse problems.

Dennison said the need for re-entry services has increased in recent years. The sheriff’s office had been accustomed to issues with alcohol, she said, but the current drug crisis has introduced new difficulties. Much of the burden falls on corrections officers, who are not trained or equipped to treat drug addiction.

Opioid withdrawal is known to be a brutally painful process, and the days of symptoms can include diarrhea and vomiting, among many others. Some addicts say avoiding withdrawal is a primary, immediate motivation for seeking more drugs.

And it has been widely reported that many of Maine’s jails and prisons struggle with drug smuggling.

Mandel mentioned a number of other daunting statistics from the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, including that 70 percent of American inmates are high school dropouts, 50 percent are functionally illiterate and 19 percent have fewer than eight years of education.

Dennison added that cutting down on recidivism could also result in tax savings. The jail, which can currently house 86 inmates, has at times suffered from overcrowding. This paper reported in 2014 that it cost $89 a day to house an inmate. The total approved jail budget for 2017 is $3,382,892, by far the largest departmental budget under the county’s auspices.

Carroll and Mandel emphasized that keeping former inmates out of jail would require a community effort. Interested members of the public are invited to attend the re-entry program’s first planning meeting Monday, March 20, at 5:30 p.m. at the First Universalist Church, 345 Broadway, Rockland.

Reporter Dan Otis Smith can be reached at 594-4401 x123 or by email at dsmith@villagesoup.com