Donna Smith’s battle with drugs began before she was a teenager.
“I actually started my addiction when I was 12 years old. I was using heroin at 12,” said Smith.
She’s spent the last decade in and out of jails and institutions.
“Never once did we have an NA meeting, have anyone tell us what an addict was or about the disease,” she said. “So when I got out, I immediately went back to the lifestyle that I was living.”
But Smith, now 30, has been in the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP) for about a month at the Chesterfield County Jail.
“I have been to several programs in the last year and a half that I’ve been incarcerated and I’ve gotten more out of this program in the last month,” said Smith.
Sheriff Karl Leonard launched HARP two years ago when he realized he was releasing sober addicts who didn’t have the tools to fight addictions on their own.
He said his program focuses on trauma-initiated addictions.
So far, 585 people have entered the popular program.
On Friday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) toured the jail to see how it works.
Kaine serves on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. He said he needs to hear from the very people his decisions impact.
“I need to hear from them about how they got into addiction. I need to hear about why when they’ve been in prison or jail before there haven’t been programs for them and I need to hear why this program works when nothing else worked before,” he said.
He spent a few hours Friday afternoon meeting with the men and women currently enrolled in HARP. They shared their stories of success and their struggles.
One man said he got hooked on opioids when he was overprescribed medication for a high school sports injury. An 18-year-old woman said drugs were the norm in her home growing up.
Participants said the program’s success comes down to three things — the peer-to-peer recovery method, that they are shown respect and they are there because they want to be there.
“If you give someone an ounce of hope, that multiplies tremendously,” said Leonard.
But many in HARP said they wish they didn’t have to get locked up to get access to support.
“Again and again what I heard here is, why isn’t there a program like this in the community before you get arrested? That’s a powerful challenge,” said Kaine. “That’s what we need to go back and find.”
Currently, Kaine is working on passing a bipartisan opioid bill. It’s made it out of his committee, but still needs to go through the full Senate, the House and get the president’s signature.
“I don’t think that will be a problem because President Trump has said he wants us to get this bill to him,” said Kaine.
Kaine’s portion of the bill focuses on recovery houses.
“[That’s] a really good model for helping people find recovery. We don’t have enough of them. We don’t even know how many we have. We need to have good standards for them and try to increase the number,” he said.
Smith expects to be released in the next month or so.
She feels confident she won’t land back in jail now that she has the experience of HARP.
“This time, I just know it’s different,” said Smith.