MILTON — Ben Deeb has been a drug addict and done time behind bars — eight years in all, some of that at the Saratoga County Jail.
He's still in the jail today, but now he's a certified recovery peer advocate for The Prevention Council, who works to help inmates with opioid addictions or other drug issues. According to both counselors and corrections officers, drugs or alcohol are an underlying problem for at least 80 percent of the inmates of the county jail, regardless of what crimes they were arrested for.
"They can relate to my experience," Deeb said. "We know what it's like to get a paycheck on Friday and be broke on Monday."
As a peer advocate, Deeb is one of the people excited that Sheriff Michael H. Zurlo is setting aside a 31-bed wing inside the jail for addicts in medication-assisted treatment, where people actively looking to break their addictions will be housed separately from the general jail population. There, they will be able to receive individual and group counseling.
The housing unit will also take and house together jailed veterans, many of whom have substance abuse issues, but also a strong culture of helping each other.
"The goal is to provide them with services so they don't come back in here," Zurlo said Friday, during a tour for local news organizations.
The new wing is scheduled to open in two or three weeks, Zurlo said. A special drug treatment wing is also opening at the Albany County Jail, but county officials believe those are the only two jails in the state, outside New York City, with special areas set aside for addicts and veterans.
Jail Administrator Col. Richard Emery said the county is reacting to the explosion in opioid addiction in recent years, as well as a desire to help veterans. "To me, it's like we have these people here, why not provide services to them? Don't just warehouse them," he said.
The jail on County Farm Road in Milton has 266 beds and currently houses 177 inmates, meaning it has the flexibility to set up a special program area, away from other inmates.
The jail has had a veterans' peer-to-peer counseling program since 2014. Housing veterans together should lead to their supporting each other in recovery, officials believe.
"We'll have previously incarcerated veterans come back as successful veterans and say, 'Here's what helped me,'" said corrections Lt. Ray Rodriguez, himself a Marine and Army veteran, who will oversee the new unit.
The unit will mix veterans of all ages if they are incarcerated, as the thinking goes that they all share many of the same experiences, regardless of when they served. "Once veterans get together, it's really easy for that comradery to start building again," said Frank McClements, the county's director of veterans' services.
The inmates will have access to individual and group counseling through the county mental health department, which also will perform the inmate evaluations to determine who is suitable for the special housing unit.
"These will be like-minded people who will support each other," said Kasey Lloyd, a county mental health social worker. "Inmates must be of good character and want to make changes."
The medication-assisted treatment inmates in the unit will be those receiving drugs like methadone, naltrexone and suboxone, which are used to wean addicted people off of opioids. They must be in counseling and trying to break their addiction to get the medications.
Housing the inmates apart from the general population increases their chances of recovery, counselors say. Those in the unit will also have some special privileges, such as being allowed to keep the television on after midnight for sporting events.
"This is absolutely amazing. It's forward-looking. This is something Saratoga County needs," said Lillian McCarthy, associate director of The Prevention Council, which provides counselors at the jail and also helps addicts get into treatment programs if needed upon their release.
Setting up the new housing unit required knocking out a wall and putting bunk beds in an area that was formerly a classroom; Zurlo estimated the work cost the county about $250,000.
While the number of jailed women has increased due to the opioid crisis, the new unit will be for men only.