ALFRED, Maine – At first glance, the articles lining the tables in the York County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, December 8 seemed haphazard and unrelated.

Narcan nasal spray. Hand sanitizer. Condoms. A small bag of Snyder mini pretzels. Kit-Kat chocolate bars. Brochures. Face masks. Fentanyl test strips.

But take a closer look.

There is a theme among these items – especially if you take out the chocolate and pretzels, not to mention trail mix and Hershey bars that were also on the tables.

Safety is the theme. Or, as York County Jail officials call it, harm reduction.

Narcan is a nasal spray that fights opioid overdoses in adults and children, but it’s not just a drug overdose that the authorities are trying to prevent – with these items they are also trying to reduce the risk of disease. sexually transmitted infections, COVID-19 and other health threats.

Sponsorship agency volunteers have spent the morning placing each of these items and more in 250 “harm reduction bags,” all of which will return home with individuals once they are freed from their time spent at the clinic. prison, located off Route 4 on Layman Way in Alfred.

“The vast majority of those who become involved with the law have some type of substance abuse disorder, and these harm reduction bags will provide every person with available tools they can rely on to ensure a safe and drug-free transition into the community.” community, “York County Sheriff William King said in a press release.

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What about those who are released from prison and have no drug addiction issues? They can also take a bag home, if they wish. Often times, they know someone who is struggling with drug addiction.

The effort is a collaboration between the Sheriff’s Office, Southern Maine Health Care, and Maine Behavioral Health. Representatives from these agencies – along with others, such as the Sanford Housing Authority – participated in the bagging session as Christmas music played softly in the background.

There is a reason for chocolate

On Wednesday, December 8, 2021, York County Sheriff William King talks to reporters about a new initiative at York County Jail that he and others hope to help individuals succeed as they return to their community after their incarceration.

On Wednesday, King said people often lose their supports or find they have declined once they are released from prison after incarceration. The bags – filled with supplies and brochures on programs, services and important contact details – are meant to make sure people don’t feel lonely when they leave prison.

“We want to prepare people for success,” King said. “It’s going to show them that they have all of these community partners who are ready and willing to help them. This is the important thing.

What about those chocolate bars?

When someone leaves prison, they want to get out of there, King said. They could look in that green bag and see some brochures and maybe not come to them. But what if they see chocolate or some other treat in there?

“They’re going to keep the bag a bit longer,” King said. “This will give them time to see what’s in the bag, and I hope they hang on to it.”

Understand the need

In 2021, the prison released an average of 113 people per month from incarceration, which works out to about 1,400 people per year, King said. Other bagging sessions will be scheduled next year, he added. The program is largely funded by federal grants.

York County Jail Administrator Nathan Thayer unwraps supplies to be included in the harm reduction bags that volunteers gathered at the Sheriff's Office in Alfred on Wednesday, December 8, 2021.

“We are bringing all of this good stuff out into the community,” King said. “Especially the Narcan. We want Narcan kicked out.

The initiative is the brainchild of prison administrator Nathan Thayer and REACH, a MaineHealth program. REACH stands for Recovery Engagement Acceptance Compassion Hope.

Thayer took office in September. At the time, the prison Medication Assisted Treatment Program only one person has been helped for their substance abuse disorder, Thayer said Wednesday. He wanted to expand that, he added, and now more than 50 people are benefiting from the program.

People released from the MAT program must receive Narcan. When Thayer spoke with a representative from REACH, he made a suggestion: what if every released person was given Narcan, even if they did not personally suffer from drug addiction?

“Our goal is to flood Narcan County and see if we can reduce the rate of overdoses,” Thayer said.

There were 504 overdose deaths in Maine in 2020, according to the University of Maine Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Of these, 332 related to pharmaceutical substances and 399 to illicit drugs. Twenty years ago, there were 90 overdose deaths – a jump from 34 just four years earlier – of which 74 were attributed to pharmaceuticals and 31 to illicit substances.

Diane Gerry, left, and Jennifer Ouellette, of the Sanford Housing Authority, help pack harm reduction bags at the York County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday, December 8, 2021.

But drug addiction is not the only dangerous risk people face. Eventually, it became apparent to Thayer and others that other precautionary measures can also be provided to those released. The prison sees a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases in its population, for example, so condoms have been added to the Narcan, Thayer said. And then, with the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks and hand sanitizer were also added.

“It kind of evolved,” Thayer said.

The brochures – for REACH, Sweetser, Maine Access Points and others – are the “biggest piece” of harm reduction bags, according to Thayer.

“There are so many different resources,” he said. “If people need help, at least they can find it.”