Cook County Jail's inmate opioid treatment programs SMART and THRIVE are trailblazers in Illinois

Mark Rivera Image
Thursday, March 28, 2024
Cook County Jail opioid treatment program is trailblazer in Illinois
Cook County Jail inmate opioid addiction treatment programs SMART and THRIVE are trailblazers in Illinois, providing therapy and medication assistance

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Opioids are currently the cause of more deaths in Cook County than homicides, with 9,791 deaths in the last six years.

At Cook County Jail, behind locked doors, barricades, fences and razor wire, in a barren room, about 40 men sat in tan county jail uniforms, unwrapping their innermost feelings, fears and fixations.

"It destroyed a lot of bonds in my life. A lot of relationships. Employment, housing. And I felt myself going deeper and deeper digging a hole I couldn't get out of until I found the SMART program, I found treatment. I got myself help," said inmate Rydiun Walton.

Walton lost his mother and brother to opioid overdoses. He and his fellow inmates are part of the Cook County Sheriff's Men's Addiction Recovery Treatment, or SMART, program, working to cut themselves off from the demon of opioid addiction. Walton just completed the 90-day program.

RELATED: Cook County sees record 2,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2022

"It's going to take a lot of resilience, a lot of commitment, durability, adaptability when we get out of here because life is not going to be easy when we get out of here," he said. "For once, I feel like you are not your mistakes. Yes, we made mistakes in the past, but that does not define who you really are."

"It's like I was a slave to opioids," said inmate Keith Bolden. "The main thing I've learned since I've been here was patience and humility."

Bolden has been in the program for 59 days. Over the past three years he said he's seen 35 people die from opioid overdoses. He said the first step to recovery is the hardest.

RELATED: Twice as many people died from opioids than gun violence in Cook County

"I'm blessed because I could have been a statistic also," he said. "So I have a bigger purpose."

Yes, we made mistakes in the past, but that does not define who you really are

SMART employs a combination of group therapy, other therapeutic interventions and, if needed, medication-assisted weaning.

"We have medical screeners who are screening them for substance use disorder, for any signs of withdrawals," said Dr. Priscilla Ware, medical director for Cermak Health Services.

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Ware said this is the only such accredited medical opioid treatment program at a jail in the state of Illinois, including the supervised detox.

"I think as a society we have to start looking at substance use as just like the person next door to you who has diabetes and the person who has hypertension and heart disease," she said. "And once, as a community, we start recognizing that, then we quickly realize these are patients we also have to take care of."

There have been nearly double the number of opioid deaths in Cook County in the last six years as there have been homicides, which is why Sheriff Tom Dart said a program like this is vitally important to save lives.

"So much of it though does come down to just sort of basics of caring and trying to see these folks as folks who have all sorts of potential if we can get them through this substance abuse issue that people on the outside suffer through as well," he said.

Jeannie Lockett said she was addicted to heroin and tried to overdose, but is now in the women's treatment program called THRIVE.

"It's not too late. You still got time. You never know when you're going to leave this earth. You still got time so while still got time why don't you go ahead and give yourself a chance," she said.

Dart said the nearly 200 inmates in the program are released with a discharge plan and connections to opioid treatment services in the county. They are also given naloxone.

More than 3,000 inmates have completed SMART and THRIVE since they started.

There are resources in the community to help you or your loved ones if you are struggling with opioid addiction. Call 1-933-2FINDHELP or visit