TAMPA — A dozen women, all dressed in bright orange jumpsuits, gathered this week in a room somewhere deep in the guts of the Falkenburg Road Jail to hear about AIDS, what causes it, what happens when you get it and how to avoid it in their at-risk lives.
On a different day, they learn about drugs, the effects on their bodies, the legal consequences. The program is part of a push by Hillsborough County jail officials to cut down on recidivism among inmates behind bars because of illegal substances. An estimated 80 percent of jail and prison inmates can trace their predicaments to addictions in one way or another, jail officials say.
Most of the women in the class were ordered there by a judge; some came on their own in a bid to climb out of the judicial system, addiction and a life mired in trouble and busted expectations.
“It’s absolutely helping me,” said Linda Wiley, 50, serving time on a charge of possession of methamphetamine. “This is my first time in the program. I’m court-ordered, but I’m very happy. I’m learning a lot on how to stay clean, learning about my mental health.”
Wiley, whose arrest record for drug-related offenses dates to 1995, is scheduled for release in October.
On Thursday, instructor Crystal Thomas from the Metro Wellness and Community Centers talked to the group about HIV and AIDS and hepatitis.
“What do you know about HIV?” she asked. “How is it transmitted?”
Answers ranged from sex to blood transfusions.
“Can you catch it from a mosquito bite?”
The talk continued. The women began to loosen up and offer opinions, revealing what they’ve heard about HIV. They learned mosquitoes do not pass on the HIV virus.
Felicia Calhoun, 44, in jail on a charge of cocaine possession, asked about the percentages of high school students who get AIDS.
The answer: Depends on where the high school is, Thomas said, and the population sampled.
The answer suited Calhoun, who is set to be released at the end of this month and who seven years ago was charged with criminal transmission of HIV.
She said the program offers information she otherwise would never receive.
“At first I didn’t like it,” she said, “but it’s helping me a lot. I’m learning to deal with personalities, attitudes and I’m getting the tools I need to stay off drugs.”
The program is tweaked every so often to keep up with changing times, said Steve Hogue, the former Tampa police chief who now oversees this and other jail programs, including GED courses and classes in life and financial skills, self-empowerment and parenting.
Each course is two months long. At any given time, a couple hundred inmates are enrolled in the drug rehabilitation program.
“There are a lot of people in jail because of intoxication problems,” Hogue said. Inmates aren’t interviewed for the course until after a month in jail, to make sure they are clean and so their real personalities emerge.
“After they dry out,” Hogue said, “they turn out to be clever, humorous and many are just decent people.”
Two-thirds who take the class succeed when they get out, according to the sheriff’s office surveys. Success in this context means not returning to jail.
The recidivism rate among inmates varies.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for committing new crimes within three years of release and three-quarters were arrested within five years.
Hogue said just 30 percent of jail inmates who take and successfully complete the drug rehab course are re-arrested, compared with 60 percent for the overall jail population.
Christopher Howell, a treatment counselor at the jail, said the program started in the late 1980s with a grant that paid for the first couple of years. It was deemed successful and sheriffs since then have funded it.
Inmates who have been sentenced to the maximum jail time, one year or less, are eligible for the drug rehab program, and some take the courses before they go to trial to get a head start on whatever sentence they expect to get.
There is no pass or fail standard, Howell said. But inmates are required to show up for two-hour classes every day, Monday through Friday. Inmates also are required to attend once-a-week Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“We’ve had everybody from capital sex battery to murder to petty theft,” he said. “We don’t discriminate.”
In 2005, the Hillsborough sheriff’s program won the American Correctional Program Award, he said. The jail competed against jails and prisons from across the nation, and typically, the award is given to a state prison.
“It was the first time a jail won that,” Howell said.
Similar programs offered in Florida prisons have been cut over the past few years because of budget reductions, he said, leaving the jail program an important tool to help people deal with addiction.
“When state prison budgets get cut,” Howell said, “the first thing that goes is this kind of program.”
Counseling doesn’t end when inmates complete the program and are released from jail, Howell said.
“We have a whole transition plan, a discharge plan that we go over with them at our first assessment,” he said.
“We find out what support they have, where are they staying, if it’s a safe and sober place. By the end, we’ve given them whatever resources they need, including referrals, to help them with that transition.
“We do hear from people who get out,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good stuff; sometimes it’s not good stuff.”