A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jason Merrick leads through experience in drug treatment at Kenton County Detention Center

By Mike Rutledge
NKyTribune contributor

Jason Merrick, charged with helping 100 Kenton County inmates at a time escape the scourge of heroin addiction, has struggled in that wasteland himself.

He has been alcohol- and drug-free more than six years, but before that, it was anything goes for Merrick, now 44, who grew up on the West Coast.

“It all started with alcohol, but the sky’s the limit, really,” Merrick says. “I was using methamphetamine, crack cocaine, heroin, LSD, mushrooms, pills of various forms. And really, you name it. If I had access to it, I would eventually use it.”

Jason Merrick

Jason Merrick

Since July 1, Merrick has been Director of Inmate Addiction Services. On Sept. 1 he launched a program capable of housing 70 men and 30 women at the Kenton County Detention Center. Officials across Northern Kentucky have hope the program can be effective in cutting into the number of heroin addicts, which they say may be greater than 5,000 across NKY.

The program is mostly voluntary, although judges have ordered some into it.

Each morning starts at 6, with prayer/meditation and chores until 8.

Mid-morning sessions vary by day, but the inmates work on programming from The Betty Ford Hazelden program called New Direction, which was designed for correctional populations. Under a program designed by Kentucky’s Department of Corrections, they also learn life skills such as how to fill out a rental application, balance a checkbook – skills many never learned.

Inmates do individual and group counseling sessions in the afternoon, work on their GEDs part of the time, and attend 12-step programs three evenings during the week. On Fridays there’s usually a speaker from outside the jail who motivates them or encourages them to consider things like college.

Merrick himself completed his bachelor’s degree in social work from Northern Kentucky University last year and began his master’s degree in social work there earlier this year.

“What we’re doing here is trying to provide that safe, predictable environment, where someone can build a relationship with their higher power, and work toward that change that needs to occur in their life – address that issue that needs to be addressed, and then develop those skills to be able to survive in the world,” Merrick says.

“Most of the time, actually, our drug use is just a symptom to a deeper issue that we’re dealing with, and so the idea with treatment is to really get to the point where we’re really able to address that core issue, and move through that, so the drinking and drug use is no longer needed, so self-medication, escapism is no longer needed,” he adds.

Inmates in rehab (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Inmates in rehab (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Most people who have experienced a traumatic event, including drug use, have their cognitive and emotional development stunted at that age, he says.

“So a lot of these men haven’t really grown much since they were 14-, 15 years old,” he says. “So learning those skills that are necessary to survive in the world, it’s the first time for them – and they’re really at a disadvantage now because they’re in a very high-risk population that’s often ignored, and the only choice they have, once they get out of here, is to re-engage in the activities that are the only things they know: more drug use, and more criminal activity to survive.”

So far, it seems to be going well, he says.

“We have over 50 men that graduated the 30-day program on Oct. 1, and we have a couple of men who have been released, and all reports are that they’re doing quite well. A couple of them have gotten into Sober Living (transitional housing). One of them we saw at a support meeting a couple of days ago, and he’s doing well.”

In the next few weeks, the first candidates will receive injections of Vivitrol before leaving the jail. Vivitrol stops cravings and prevents people from getting high from alcohol or opioids. It’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the prevention of relapse from those drugs. The manufacturer, Alkermes, will be donating 10-20 doses a month to the jail, which is helpful to the jail’s budget, because the rate for a dose can be $1,200 or higher.

The injection helps them transition into counseling and other assistance they receive after leaving jail. Before inmates leave jail, people known as “connectors” visit the jail to reconnect inmates to the Medicaid program so payments for the medication won’t be an obstacle for them receiving follow-up Vivitrol shots and ongoing treatment and doctors’ visits.

Kenton County Jailer Terry Carl says his staff is taking yet another step to help ensure nobody slips through the cracks.

“The ones who leave here with Vivitrol, we’re going to drive them over personally to St. E’s, and turn them over personally to St. E’s program, for intensive outpatient, plus a continuation of the Vivitrol,” Carl says.

All in all, Merrick says he is thankful he went through all the tribulations of addiction, because now it is allowing him to help dozens of others at a time.

“I’m grateful for that every day,” he says. “What’s the saying? Everything I’ve done in my life has led me to this great point. And I’m just so grateful that I’m able to be of service to those that are suffering in the same ways that I was, and on a scale that I never knew was possible.

Sheriff Terry Carr

Jailer Terry Carl

“When I got into recovery, I thought I had the empathy and experience to really help people,” he adds. “And then adding a college degree to that, and next, a master’s degree to that. The journey just gets better and better every day. And what I mean by better and better is I’m able to help more people, more effectively, more efficiently. I’m able to manage a staff of (five) people who are helping people. So it’s growing exponentially. It really is quite a blessing.”

Jim Beiting, CEO of Transitions Inc., says the drug-recovery organization is proud of all its alumni, but Merrick is a standout: “He’s obviously, in a professional capacity, giving back to the community, which is fantastic, and we’re very humbled by the success he’s had.”

Beiting continues: “It’s easy to dwell on all the bad stuff – people overdosing, and children found in cars (with overdosed parents), but I think just as important is to highlight some of the positive things that are happening in Northern Kentucky, with fighting not only the heroin epidemic, but addiction in general.”

“Jason’s a great example of positive things that are happening in the community,” Beiting adds. “They weren’t doing this in the jail a year ago, and now we’ve got how many people are being positively influenced, and it’s not only Jason, but it’s the jail and everybody else involved.”

What are the odds for these inmates?

“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Merrick says. “I couldn’t put a number on it, really. It depends on what model you gather your data from.”

Abstinence-only models have success rates that are “pretty low percentage of people who actually attain long-term recovery,” he says. “Now, if you add medication-assisted treatment to that, it goes up quite a bit, like up into the 50-to-70 percent, when you treat someone with the bio/psycho/social model of recovery. Biologically you treat their disease with a medication such as Vivitrol.”

The program isn’t for everybody, partly because not everyone is ready for it.

“It’s my job also to weed out people who are just there for the wrong reasons,” Merrick says. “If they think they’re there to bide their time, or there’s some sort of incentive that’s appealing to them and they think they’re just going to get in here and sleep through, and not have to do the work, then they’re going to be identified, and they’re going to be removed from the program.”

“Sometimes people just didn’t realize that recovery’s hard work,” he adds. “When you really have to turn inward and really have to look at yourself, and what’s been going on your whole life, that’s a tall order. Some people aren’t ready for that. But we help them. We make sure if they want to leave, that’s what for-sure they want to do, and they’re making the right decision for themselves. If they don’t want to be there, then we don’t want them there. We want to get them out of there as soon as we can before they become toxic to the other people who do want to be there.”

Living quarters at detention center (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Living quarters at detention center (Photo by Mike Rutledge)

Before starting the job at the jail, Merrick was studying at NKU and was working part-time at Transitions, the Grateful Life Center, of which he is an alum, having lived there 13 months in 2009-10. He’s also a board member of People Advocating Recovery, which is dedicated to breaking down barriers that block recovery from addiction. He started the Northern Kentucky chapter of People Advocating Recovery and has done a couple thousand overdose-prevention response trainings for families and agencies across the region in recent years. He also works in Frankfort with policy makers to develop legislation, representing both the recovery community and the treatment community.

Merrick’s jail position pays $38,000 a year, but has other advantages for him, he says. He receives tuition reimbursement for his schooling and the county also helps him with an internship program needed for school.

He credits local “drug czars” Kim Moser and Kirk Kavanaugh of the Northern Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy for being critical in making the jail program a reality: “They helped a lot with the Vivitrol. They paved the way with the fiscal courts, and even the creation of my position here. They were out there advocating for this position long before I was hired. They conceptualized and implemented all the mechanisms to make this a reality. They were talking to the judges executive and the fiscal courts, and the circuit-court judges, and just really illustrating the need and presenting the solutions. And then I was invited to the table in late spring, early summer, and we made it a reality.”

Two take-away messages from Merrick:

“I think it’s important to know recovery is possible,” he says. “All too often, I hear the desperation in law enforcement, and I hear it…. People give up. It’s like, ‘Those people will never get it.’ Or, ‘Those people deserve what they get.’ I realize that’s a coping mechanism. It’s just a human instinct. We separate ourselves from a traumatic event. You see somebody dying of an overdose, you see someone rippin’ through their family, robbing and stealing, and you want to try to separate yourself from them emotionally. So what I think is important for people to see and experience is that recovery is possible. It happens. There’s 23 Million Americans today that are living in long-term recovery (from drugs and alcohol), thanks to an opportunity for treatment.”

“Maybe with some publicity, some of the other jailers will say, ‘Hey, we can do that, too,’ and reach out for some assistance,” Merrick hopes. “I’d love to help any other facility in the region, state, other states, anywhere. I would gladly pass on our template of the program so they could implement something very similar in their jails and their region. Open invitation.”

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  1. Dave says:

    This sounds like a super guy that sees a big picture as to what will keep his corner of the world clean. I get the impression he is using some of the ideas an thoughts that are used in the Fed system in RDAP (rdapprogram.com) and no doubt there will be some better people because of his work.

    Kudos to him!

  2. Josh says:

    Why does he make more than the deputies
    Protecting us??? This makes no sense

  3. Greta Gail Kennedy says:

    Dear Representative Moser and Mr. Merrick
    There are at present 700 inmates in the Kenton County Jail. How many of those are non-violent drug addicts that will be no more than a statistic on the felony list in their hopeless future?
    How many want help as opposed to incarceration and do not get it? How many have come out of jail and OD because they don’t want to go back to jail? The State of KY’s criminal system is an OBSTACLE to the success of a recovering addict? The fines and penalties of the court systems are a staggering burden. These addicts are subjected to a justice system of Parole Officers that will ruin an addict’s life AT WILL as they go forward to criminalize that person’s fate at every move. My Grandson OD because he did not want to go back to jail and the PO’s went to the hospital to wait for the narcan to take effect to take him back to the jail where he previously spent 21 days for violating the orders of a PO that has, by her own actions, not read the Offenders Handbook. We NEED an IN-MATE ADVOCACY office in the KY jails.

  4. Greta Gail Kennedy says:

    HOW, When, and Where, is/was the contact for the Mystery Merrick established?

  5. Lillian L Fisk says:

    I just want to say I’m living proof that this program works. I went to jail march of 2016 for a crime I didn’t do. But I kept hearing I needed 3yrs behind bars & this sap program…I told the judge to give me the 10yrs I signed for bc I was a bad heroin addict. Well I read my letter to the judge & told her that I didn’t do the crime but I needed to do some time bc I was a bad heroin addict. I also promised the judge that if I could stay in jail day for day for 3 yrs flat that I’d get out & not go back to heroin plus I’d have my kids back in my life with in a
    month of getting out. Let me tell U jail life sucks. It’s hard ur treated bad, starve, and You freeze… but this program opened up my life 2 a better futurer. I got out of jail march 2019. And guess what I’m almost 7 yrs clean and sober… I had my children back in my life after 1 month of being out of jail… which I had not saw in prob over 10 yrs… And now I have 2 wonderful children and 2 grandbabys. The lowest and worst feeling in the world was haven to give my kids up… The best high in the world is getting ur kids back in ur life and waken up everyday clean and sober… I want 2 give a big Big thank U 2 the Kenton co sap program. Bc of them Im not 6 foot under…
    Thank U.
    Lillian Fisk

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