Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

For Bishop Barry C. Knestout, opioid addiction is a pastoral concern. As with other pastoral concerns, the bishop is seeking answers: How can the Diocese of Richmond minister to those whose addictions destroy their lives, and lead them into criminal activity and incarceration?

On Tuesday, July 3, he received answers from six inmates — all participants in Opiate Recovery By Intensive Tracking, commonly referred to as the ORBIT program (See related story, Page 7), at the Henrico County Jail West.

Pastoral concern, personal concern

During an hour-long gathering, the bishop listened to each person’s story of life circumstances, issues of addiction and how they are recovering,

“I want to hear your stories, your own struggles, as well as ways you see would be helpful if there is something that the Church or others might provide to assist you — how we can best provide ministry and service through our churches,” he said.

The bishop told the gathering he had “practical experience with this in my own family,” noting that two nephews had spent time in incarceration due to activity related to opioid addiction.

“One is now providing treatment and counseling to those who have been addicted, so he’s made a significant transition in his life from this situation where he was not looking at the future with much hope to now helping those who are in situations where they have had experiences similar to his,” Bishop Knestout said. “The other is still struggling.”

The bishop sharing that opioid addiction was a personal concern as well as a pastoral one established a candid tone for the inmates’ narratives, each a story of desolation followed by hope.

‘Gateway drugs’

All at the table could pinpoint when their addictions started. Several, like William Pye, noted they often began in high school or earlier with “gateway drugs” — alcohol and marijuana.

“I excelled in football; I was state player of the year. … By my senior year I had scholarships to University of West Virginia and University of Richmond. I went to West Virginia, and I carried my addiction with me,” he said. “I threw everything down the drain.”

Brandon Ingram had experience with gateway drugs, but relief from an injury suffered while playing AAA hockey introduced him to opiates. When he could no longer get them, he had “cravings.”

“I had an addiction for a long time without getting into trouble. I had a nice job,” he said of the work he did building intersections for VDOT. “Eventually, the money I made wasn’t enough. I started dealing (drugs), doing things I could never picture myself doing. To be honest, I didn’t have the tools I needed to reflect on my life.”

Church’s role

Asked by the bishop how the Church could help, the inmates’ responses varied.

Susan Donan, a Catholic who attends Mass at St. Paul Parish, Richmond, said, “I like the fact the Catholic Church wants to reach out to us inmates. The Catholic Church is home; it’s a place of comfort.”

Ingram said the Church could “do what we’re doing now — raise awareness.”

“People aren’t aware of the stigma until it happens in your family, until it happens to your kid,” he said. “Educate people before it happens to their kids, before it happens to family members.”

Katherine McKenzie, who recently got married, took a “plethora of pain pills” following a bad car accident, eventually finding “heroine was cheaper and easier to find.”

She saw the Church as another source of support in her recovery.

“I don’t have much of a family,” McKenzie said. “To have that support (from the Church) would mean a lot.”

Bishop Knestout agreed.

“The Church can provide the opportunity for that support — the family setting, an environment in the Church where you can find a place of comfort, and a connection with a higher power beyond us where we can place our lives, confident we’re going to receive the grace and support we need,” he said.

Before leading the gathering in prayer, Bishop Knestout told the group he was “honored that you have shared your struggles and personal circumstances. I encourage you in that.”

He continued, “Pope Francis wants to make the Church aware of those who are addicted or incarcerated. The whole Church has a responsibility to be present and to reach out to those who are distant, struggling or alone.”

In addition to Bishop Knestout and the inmates, others attending the meeting were Father Michael Boehling, vicar general of the diocese; Michael School, director of the diocese’s Office of Social Ministries; Father James Griffin, pastor of St. Paul Parish, Richmond; Henrico County Sheriff Michael L. Wade; and Sara Davis Harman, classification supervisor and ORBIT program coordinator.

During an interview with The Catholic Virginian on Thursday, July 12, Bishop Knestout spoke about opioid addiction.

“There is still a stigma attached — understandably — to someone who is addicted; there’s still the sense they chose something and that they’re getting their just desserts,” he said. “So, there’s kind of a hesitation about trying to respond even pastorally or medically in that situation.”

Noting that during the last week of June he had seen the ravages of opioid addiction during his visit to the southwestern part of the diocese, Bishop Knestout said the Church needs to continue ministering to those affected by this crisis.

“We can highlight how some of our Catholic faithful are involved in ways to bring about a practical, effective solution to this problem,” he said. “It may be in the context of incarceration and law enforcement, but it is a healing ministry — an effort that involves education and counseling.”

In noting that he would continue to encourage parishes to look at ways to assist in opioid addiction recovery, Bishop Knestout said, “There are very few families who are not touched by opioid or other kinds of addiction.”

Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s meeting with inmates in the ORBIT program at the Henrico County Jail West, Tuesday, July 3, concluded with participants joining hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer. (Photo/Deborah Cox)

ORBIT offers hope, redemption

When Bishop Barry C. Knestout went to the Henrico County Jail West, Wednesday, July 3, he not only heard about the addictions from which six inmates are recovering, but he learned about Opiate Recovery By Intensive Tracking, commonly referred to as the ORBIT program, in which 145 inmates participate.

The bishop was there at the invitation of Sheriff Michael L. Wade who had invited him to learn about the program and its success from people who are benefiting from it.

ORBIT, started in 2016, is a four-phase program to which the courts can refer offenders. It is designed specifically for rehabilitating opioid-addicted inmates.

The first phase requires completing two phases of the Recovery in a Safe Environment (RISE) program, which started in 2000. The county describes it as “intense,” as it involves 12-hour days, seven-day weeks, during which participants learn the basics of recovery and develop a relapse prevention plan.

In the second phase, inmates, under the supervision of a deputy, are part of a work crew at Henrico County facilities. When not working, they are attending training and meetings in order to increase their skills and knowledge.

“I do janitorial work; it has humbled me,” said Katherine McKenzie, who at one time worked in marketing for Clear Channel Radio. “It’s exactly what I needed. I’m proud of myself and what I accomplish every day.”

This phase also allows inmates to go to church weekly, spend time with family in a supervised environment, work on a GED, get vocational training, and develop interview and resume writing skills.

Wade said people who think the program is “trading labor for treatment have the wrong impression.” “People who have never worked before need to go out and learn skills and find work,” he said. “Of all the work crews they’ve hired to work around the complex, I don’t think they’ve ever had anybody that’s cared more than the people we have. We’re giving them an opportunity to fix themselves and the tools to do it.”

Brandon Ingram concurred.

“I’d be in DOC not helping myself — in the weight pod, watching TV, listening to music,” he said. “I’d be going back into society without any of these tools. There needs to be more programs like this.”

“I really believe jails are a great place for substance abuse treatment. Eighty-seven percent of people in jail have a substance abuse problem; probably 10 percent of jails in country have a treatment program,” Wade said.

He termed the program “very faith based,” but added, “We didn’t put that in there.”

“I didn’t come in and say, ‘You need to do AA.’ The inmates asked for AA. That’s the other reason we don’t order anybody into it. The Supreme Court has ruled AA is a religion, and you can’t order people into a religion.”

The third phase allows for monitored work release, while the final phase is home electronic monitoring. In both phases inmates are subject to random drug testing. The program ends when their sentences end.

For McKenzie, the program offers hope.

“I lost hope in myself. If you lose hope, you don’t see a reason to keep going,” she said. “They put hope in us. They put faith in us, which in turn you see the faith in ourselves, which makes us try harder every day.”

Ingram described the effect of the program with a religious term.

“Redemption is a big part of Catholicism,” he said. “That’s what ORBIT does; it gives us redemption and allows us to go back out.”