Finding Freedom

Jail program provides counseling, life skills


John Shahan was back in front of a judge, this time for drug charges that threatened to land him in prison for eight years.

“I thought I was done for,” he said. “I was tired of people treating me like I was worthless.”

As his case went through the court system, Shahan was accepted into JCAP, a chemical dependency treatment program for inmates at the Montgomery County Jail. Hoping it would allow him to avoid prison, “it kind of dawned on me that it really should be more than that,” he said.

Shahan, who continued treatment in prison once he graduated and remains in long-term therapy since completing his sentence, is among recovering drug users who have benefited from the collaborative effort to address the drug crisis.

The jail partners with the Crawfordsville Fire Department, Valley Oaks Health, Montgomery Superior Court I and Workforce Plus for the initiative, which stands for Jail Chemical Addiction Program.

The state-backed program also serves inmates in Fountain, Warren, Shelby, Scott, Marshall and Kosciusko counties.

Participants receive counseling and life skills classes aimed to begin three months before they’re released from jail. Nine men and five women are currently enrolled, housed in separate wings apart from the general inmate population.

“We’re not going to change a lifetime of bad behavior,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Ryan Needham, “but we’re certainly going to give you the tools and the starting block for you to change it. And when you walk out that door, I mean, there’s really no excuses.”

The men’s program launched in 2019 with funding from the Indiana Drug Enforcement Association and Valley Oaks Health, with then-jail commander Capt. Lonnie Jones playing an instrumental role in selecting the first group. Funding now comes from the jail budget.

The women’s program began in 2020 through a grant from the Drug Free Montgomery Coalition.

Of the 117 total participants to date, 92 have completed the program. The rate of graduates who have reoffended stands at 30.1%, compared to less than a quarter before the coronavirus pandemic. The one-year national average is 50%.

“When I started here … I didn’t think jail could be a good thing for somebody, but it can be. It depends on how you take it,” said jail chaplain Jamie Cevala, who coordinates the program.

In the men’s JCAP pod on a recent morning, the group gathered for book club, where they’re reading “The Lord of the Rings.”

“It’s not that I want to be free from the jail cell, I want to be free for the rest of my life,” said Elijah Carpenter, 35, explaining why he joined the program.

Across the table, 23-year-old Michael McCrory was days away from graduating. It was his second time in the program. He said he’s been accepted to Trinity Life Ministries, where he will go following his release if the judge approves.

“It was nice to complete something,” he said.

Since being released from prison in May, Shahan, who remains on probation, has found an entry-level job at Closure Systems International as he works to gain joint custody of his 3-year-old son. (Two older children live in Texas with their mother.)

He’s applied for full-time positions at the plant but fears his criminal background will prevent him from being considered.

“I know they need help,” Shahan said. “I see people quitting all the time or not showing up.” He wants to finish classes he began while incarcerated to become a certified peer recovery coach.

He keeps the declaration he wrote in JCAP on his phone.

No longer will I let anyone or anything influence or deter me from the course I choose. I refuse to let my circumstances or situation affect me in any negative way.

I will no longer allow any one person to dictate, direct or deter me, or make me feel less than what I believe to be my true self.

Not just for today, but for the future I will be who I choose to be — an example to my people, a leader to my people and a beacon to any and all of my wayward people.

I will let my actions speak. I will allow my words to guide.

All my works will be what defines me. Cheat not on your future with the past, move on and let go.

You will be free.