By Avery Kreemer | February 26, 2019
Just north of Nelsonville – an old-fashioned mining town located in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills – a large building complex formerly known as the Hocking Correctional Facility lies idle. The prison, which was formerly home to some 400 aging inmates, was fully shut down by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in March 2017.
The closure meant the relocation of 110 jobs and the loss of several vital utility contracts in the small Appalachian town that is struggling to stay afloat, like so many other communities in the region.
In 2017, before the closure, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 40 percent of Nelsonville’s estimated 5,292 residents lived in poverty, with the median household income of the town at about two- fifths that of the median American household income; the public school district received a D grade from the Ohio Department of Education; a relatively recent highway bypass redirected traffic around the city.
In many ways, Nelsonville has been hit with heavy burdens, including the inability to escape the grasp of the opioid epidemic that has such a strong hold on the region.
The four-state area of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, in descending order, had the four highest state drug overdose death rates in the country in 2017. Each of those states saw a significant increase from the year before, leaving Nelsonville uniquely centered in an area that has an average age-adjusted overdose rate of 46.4 overdose deaths per 100,000 people.
And, with the shift of usage from heroin or prescription opiates to ultra-potent synthetic opiates such as fentanyl or carfentanil, administrator of the Athens City-County Health Department Jack Pepper believes drug overdose deaths could keep climbing in the region.
“I don’t think that we’ve seen the peak yet. If you go on the numbers from last year, just in overdose deaths, we’re still seeing an increase in that,” he says.
In the face of the growing epidemic, the community surrounding Nelsonville is leading an effort to repurpose the town’s idle correctional facility into a women’s recovery center and turn the town into a leader in the fight against opioid addiction.
The effort, called the Appalachian Recovery Center Project, consists of 22 regional organizations, most of which are direct partners of the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health (OAIPH).
The OAIPH, also known as the Alliance, is an Ohio University-backed collaborative organization that links together healthcare providers, researchers, communities and policymakers to create solutions for public health issues in Ohio.
Rick Hodges, the director of the Alliance and OU executive in residence who worked as the manager of the project, says he expects the center to be opened in 2019. The center is not yet officially named.
“We’re excited that we have a project,” Hodges says. “The whole notion is to make it a very different kind of facility than what exists out there in the country right now.”
Once repurposed, the three-story facility will be split in two and run by different entities. It will be solely for women, as to make up for the lack of bed space around the state for low-level female felons and misdemeanants.
The first floor will be a community-based correctional facility (CBCF) run by STAR of Southern Ohio. CBCFs are state-funded alternatives to standard incarceration that focus on rehabilitating generally nonviolent offenders. The second and third floors will be jail space with a rehabilitative focus managed by the Hocking County sheriff.
STAR, which runs a 250-bed facility in Franklin Furnace, Ohio, uses behavioral-cognitive therapy, educational practices and aftercare plans to reduce the odds of a past offender committing another offense.
“The community-based corrections facility is a very different culture,” Hodges says. “But we’re also trying to share that culture with the jail so that the focus is on recovery.”
The recovery center is described as a wrap-around facility in a statement from the office of U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, meaning that the center will focus on making sure people stay healthy after receiving in-patient care. The main focuses will be on crisis intervention, treatment access, rehabilitation and job placements.
Stivers, who represents Nelsonville in the U.S. House of Representatives, arranged a large meeting with local leaders on behalf of the effort in January 2018 and has supported the repurposing project since the early stages.
As a U.S. congressman’s involvement might suggest, the project has been lauded at local, state and federal levels, and on both sides of the aisle as well. About $10 million in funding has been accumulated so far.
“We’ve received support and hard work from a lot of people,” Hodges says. “Everybody has checked their egos at the door and come together for the common good because of the importance of this project.”
Within the first two years of operation, over 2,000 expected patients will have access to mental health treatment, inpatient and outpatient care, job training and education, and transitional housing services.
With health agencies and officials still trying to understand what resources are most beneficial to those battling addiction, having a variety of treatment options available is vital.
“There really isn’t a lot of good information out there,” Pepper says. “This is such a new and evolving problem that we’re still really in that early phase of data gathering and evaluating treatments that work.”
Housing so many treatment options and resources in a consolidated space is a unique approach to tackle the opioid epidemic, and it’s incomparable to anything else in the state or the nation, Hodges says.
“It’s not just going to revolutionize the way Ohio or Appalachia tackles the opioid epidemic,” Stivers says, “But it’s creating a model that can be used across the country.”
With such a project placed in Nelsonville, the center has an opportunity to not only help people recover, but to help a community recover too.
The utility contracts that Nelsonville lost from the closure of Hocking Correctional will be restored, giving the town an important boost in revenue.
Stivers’ office expects 148 local jobs to be created, 24 of which will be lled by graduates of Ohio’s drug court program, which is an increasingly common method of ensuring that people struggling with addiction receive appropriate and personalized treatment. By partnering with drug courts around Ohio, the center can also expand the drug court program by giving opiate-addicted offenders an avenue for recovery.
As the community rallies around the project, an understanding presents itself. With the center and the benefits the project is expected to sow, a small Appalachian town will have used bipartisan dialogue and community organizers to turn a large-scale job loss into a bold example of recovery.
“Ultimately,” Hodges says, “the goal is to give people a second chance at life.”