Cook County Jail takes ‘SMART' approach to addiction

The program is unique, and is already making a big impact

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Inside a living unit at Cook County jail, detainees talk openly about substance abuse and what it has done to their lives, examining the choices they have made and discuss the changes they can make.

Shaheed Johnson is eager to participate in the session, which is part of the Sheriff’s Men’s Addiction Recovery Treatment, or SMART, Program.

“You could put the same time and energy into getting high as you can into doing the right thing and becoming a positive member of society,” he said.

The SMART program, and a sister program called “THRIVE” for female detainees, grew out of a realization that overdose deaths countywide are skyrocketing...especially those involving fentanyl.

“The fact that we have this horrific opioid epidemic going on meant that we were going to have issues with it here, both with people inside and people passing through it,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

One of the keys to the success of Cook County’s addiction treatment programs is their use of medically-assisted treatment. Cook County’s Cermak Medical Services is the only jail in the state offering such a program.

 “We have had excellent results,” said Dr. Patrick Ennis, who is the director of the Opioid Treatment Program at Cermak Hospital. “The studies really show that methadone and buprenorphine prevent overdose, in the long run."

Detainees usually choose one of those options for treatment, Ennis said.

Currently, more than 100 men are taking part in the SMART Program, while 34 women are involved in THRIVE.

Dart said his department is finding that detainees who stay with the program are half as likely to commit a new crime or come back to jail for substance abuse issues.

“It’s really clear these programs are working because we are studying it, not because I feel it in my gut,” he said.

Alvin Stewart is 90 days into the program and said he feels different already.

“It helped me with my depression, my thinking ability, and my morals to be who I am from day one,” he said.

When asked if he thought what he learned would help him when he leaves the jail, Stewart said, “it’s not going to be helping me, I think it is helping me.”

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