The wait for substance abuse counseling inside the Mecklenburg County jail has grown - and those incarcerated face even more delays due to a recent swell of COVID-19 cases at the detention facility.
This month, multiple housing units inside the jail were on COVID quarantine, meaning non-essential workers or visitors could not enter. Since June, there have been 100 cases among jail workers and those in custody.
During the outbreak, officials have been forced to pause most of the jail's substance abuse program, contributing to the waitlist growing to 45 days - longer than many people who need the help even spend in custody.
Completing the counseling while in jail can positively impact sentencing decisions, bail amounts and plea deal options after someone's been arrested.
For example, at one recent bond hearing attended by The Charlotte Observer, a loved one for a man arrested for domestic violence spoke on his behalf and sought to lower his bail. The judge said before that could happen, the man would need to complete the substance use program in the jail. With the waitlist so long, a representative from the public defender's office argued, that wasn't a realistic option.
Community Support Services, a county government department, operates the substance abuse program and is fully staffed with 10 counselors. The CSS program serves up to 48 men and 15 women at any given time, Mecklenburg County spokesman Alex Burnett said. As of August 11 there were 60 men on the wait list.
The Mecklenburg County Public Defender's Office did not respond to multiple requests from the Observer asking about how the current backlog in the program is affecting defendants.
The need for substance abuse treatment options is high for people in jail. Statistics provided by the National Institutes of Health suggest well over half of America's prison population has an active substance abuse disorder.
In Mecklenburg, the sheriff's office and CSS officials in May launched a supplemental substance abuse counseling program, made possible by a grant. However, this program is also stalled due to COVID cases rising in the jail, and is still hiring at least two counselors.
"So it will take time to see the impact of additional services on the CSS waitlist," Burnett said, adding that pre-COVID the wait list was at about 30 days.
While both programs are stopped, CSS can still perform assessments and intakes for those in non-quarantined units but counseling is on hold, Evelyn McGill, substance use unit supervisor, told the Observer.
The program prioritizes those who are pregnant, IV users, or being released soon, Burnett said. Those who are placed in a restrictive jail pod due to behavioral issues are forced to start over on the wait list, even if those behavioral issues are caused by their substance use problem.