DE QUEEN, Ark. — An area sheriff is gaining statewide attention for a program that helps prisoners fight substance abuse—or as he calls it, a "dark night."
Those dark nights helped convince Sevier County, Ark., Sheriff Robert Gentry to work with other authorities to create a treatment program.
Sevier County's Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program for inmates, established by Gentry and Jail Administrator Chris Wolcott in late 2017, is garnering attention across the state.
The Arkansas House of Representatives recently honored the Sevier County program with a resolution highlighting its success.
"I've been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and used to think we need to send everybody to their maximum sentence or longest time in jail," said Gentry, who is serving his second term as sheriff.
Through the program, enrollees are offered a significantly reduced sentence, 90 days in jail. Following completion, graduates must remain drug-free with no arrests throughout probation.
Inmate Jeffrey James graduates on Thursday. He admits he was in a bad way when he started the substance abuse treatment program.
"I have done a lot of drugs in my life. I was skin and bones when I came in here. I didn't deserve the program, but I don't think I would have made it without it," he said.
"I feel better about myself now. It saved my life."
To date, 70 percent of graduates remain drug-free with no additional arrests. Along with required substance abuse classes, the program's electives include anger management, adult-education classes, career development, parenting classes or church attendance. Many graduates are now employed full time and have reclaimed custody of children previously in foster care.
Those enrolled in the program face sentences from two years to 20 years.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections spends an average of $22,800 a year to house an inmate. The Sevier County program has already saved more than $1.5 million in tax dollars while serving as a model to correctional facilities throughout the state.
"Launched with a minimal investment, this program is saving tax dollars, but, most importantly, it is positively changing the lives of Arkansans," said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "I applaud Sevier County for establishing this and expanding the scope to include adult education and career development. This program provides inmates the tools required for success upon release."
The Sevier County Sheriff's Office established the program in partnership with Arkansas' Jail Standards Office, a division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. A grant totaling $154,000 was provided to support the program's launch. DFA administered the grant through the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment For State Prisoners program, provided by the Department of Justice.
"To say the program has been a success would be an understatement," said Chris Wolcott, Sevier County Jail administrator. "Due to the lives that have been changed, I have citizens asking how they can enroll themselves or a family member. Seeing graduates living positive, healthy lives as great parents and employees is a testament to the many people and organizations that make this possible."
"Instead of chasing the prisoner, we try to rehab them," Gentry said.
"It's not one thing that makes a difference. We're trying to make a different difference," Gentry said. "It's a community getting together and getting behind a program. Our community is making a difference. We've implemented different inmate services, such as Bible study, Celebrate Recovery, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, parenting classes, anger management classes and the Sevier County Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program."
The program will celebrate the seventh graduation Thursday with an expected audience of 250 people, Gentry said.
The guest speaker will be J.Cody Highland, U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Inmate Scottie Flournoy is also graduating Thursday. He believes the program has made a difference in his life.
"My little sister went through it and it did wonders for her. I was pretty much begging to do it. I had been in my addiction for so long," Flournoy said.
Flournoy was wanted for stealing a motorcycle. He was almost relieved when the deputies caught up with him.
He credits the support and structure of the abuse treatment program for helping him.
"They also explain the science behind addiction and your brain and why you are the way you are. There is a lot of support and a lot of tools."
Flournoy believes the program has given him a "fighting chance."
"I'm a carpenter by trade and I have a lot of work waiting on me when I get out," he said.
Flournoy, along with James and other inmates, is already telling the next class to give the program a chance.
Inmate Matthew Van Horn starts the next substance abuse class on May 13. He has been incarcerated numerous times in several states.
"I know I need help and they are doing things here that no other jails I have been in are doing. Wolcott and the sheriff and the jailers, they can see I want something different. I'm seeing these guys who have gone through this program and I believe this program is something special."