CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER: At county jail, Spanberger meets with recovering addicts

RICH GRISET, CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER

Jodi Gayan’s addiction to heroin began without her knowledge. Kicked out of her home at age 13, Gayan was befriended by a man who began covertly putting heroin in her meals and drinks. After becoming hooked, Gayan was sold into sex trafficking and held captive for four years before escaping.

As a member of Chesterfield County Jail’s Helping Addicts Recover Permanently program, Gayan’s story was one of many shared with U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger on a visit last Thursday.

“They use drugs as a form of restraint, so once you get away, you are still dependent on the drugs,” Gayan said of her experience.

Spanberger, a Democrat who represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes a portion of Chesterfield, is part of the 36-member Freshman Working Group on Addiction, a bipartisan group of newly elected representatives working to promote policies to end the nation’s opioid addiction crisis. Meeting separately with members of HARP’s male and female inmate groups, Spanberger often wiped away tears while listening to their tales of addiction and recovery efforts.

John Hargrove said his path to using heroin began with painkillers he was prescribed for a back injury. He said the HARP program was better than privately owned recovery centers he had attended.

“It’s a completely different atmosphere. It’s encouraging to be in a setting like this,” Hargrove said. “It gives me personally a lot of hope.”

Charles Snipes said he had been in prison six times before coming to HARP, and that the program had helped him find himself.

“I didn’t know why I kept doing what I was doing,” said the 55-year-old. “This program has taught me more in 7 months than 55 years of [living].”

Antwon Hogan spoke of getting his GED earlier this year and his plans to attend Virginia State University to study photography upon his release.

“It works. The program works,” he said.

Many spoke about the lack of services for those dealing with addiction in the U.S. Gayan discussed the need for same-day admittance for addiction treatment.

“I know when I was out there, I would have brief moments where I wanted help [and would have to wait],” she said. “The reality is, when I need help, I need it right then.”

Charles Snipes shares his experience with drug addiction and recovery during Spanberger’s visit to the Chesterfield County Jail last week. Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce

Founded in March 2016 by Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard, the HARP program has received national attention for its groundbreaking efforts to break the cycle of addiction. Originally focused on heroin addiction, the peer-to-peer recovery program expanded in 2018 to treat all types of addictions.

“It started with my frustrations with people dying [from addiction],” Leonard told Spanberger. “If they don’t get recovery, we know where they end up. They’re going to end up dead.”

Throughout the tour, Leonard highlighted alarming facts about heroin addiction, including that some of the women in his program became addicts from being prescribed Percocet after childbirth. Often, women turn to prostitution to feed their addiction.

“Almost every one of them are mothers, and almost every one of them [were] prostitutes,” he said of the women in his program. “Nearly everybody you’ll see here today has died at least once [from overdosing and come back].”

Inmates don’t have to look far for a reminder of the deadliness of heroin. On the concrete slab separating the first and second floors of the female HARP unit are remembrances to former members who have passed.

After visiting with inmates, Spanberger lauded the efforts of HARP to treat addiction.

“It’s an incredible program,” she said. “Clearly, it’s working, and it sounds like the loudest advocates for the program are the people who are in it, who have tried things before.

“To hear the stories of people who are struggling and who are working to get their lives back … it’s powerful,” Spanberger added. “It makes you grateful for what you have, and for me, it makes me motivated to remember that I represent everybody in here. That’s a special obligation, to advocate for the needs of everyone.”

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