Update: The company Hancock County had found to resume recovery coaching at the jail told the county it cannot provide the service. Read the latest story here.
The Hancock County sheriff last June barred a local nonprofit from working with jail inmates battling addiction after the group issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter.
Sheriff Scott Kane, a Republican who has been in office since 2015, wouldn’t reconsider the move even after the group, the Ellsworth nonprofit Healthy Acadia, revised its statement to less directly address police brutality and avoid mentioning the organization that has spearheaded demonstrations across the U.S. over the past year against racial inequity.
Since then, inmates at the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth have been without recovery coaches — peer mentors who start working with inmates while they’re incarcerated and help them navigate their recovery once they’re released. Kane said he and his staff have been working to find another group to offer the same service, but have yet to reach an agreement.
Officials in Washington County also objected to Healthy Acadia’s statement, but decided to stick with the group and its recovery coaches in the jail in Machias.
Although Healthy Acadia amended the wording of its statement, Kane said, he thought the organization continued to stand by its endorsement of Black Lives Matter, which he described as a “terrorist group” that advocates for overthrowing the government and the killing of police officers.
Black Lives Matter has forcefully rebutted those claims, saying in 2015, for example, that it’s “targeting the brutal system of policing, not individual police.”
Kane said he will not be affiliated with any group that advocates for the killing of police officers, or with any entity that publicly supports such a group. He believes in equality for all people, he said, and will not tolerate employees’ mistreatment of anyone because of their race.
“We just don’t do business like that,” Kane said. “I believe no matter what race you are, your life matters.”
Healthy Acadia was “devastated” when Kane canceled the group’s recovery coaching contract, said Executive Director Elsie Flemings.
Amid national protests last year over the killing of Black people by police, Healthy Acadia wanted to take an active stand against racism, which contributes to poor health and inadequate and discriminatory health care services for people of color, she said.
“The American Public Health Association has identified racism as a key force of the social determinants of health,” Flemings said. “As a public health organization, the issue of racial equity is well within our mission and can and should be considered and prioritized across our program areas.”
To try to appease the sheriff, the group changed mentions of “police brutality” in its initial June 10, 2020, statement to “violence” and re-worded a declaration that the group stands “together with Black Lives Matter” to “we affirm that Black lives matter.”
It also added a reference to a separate statement published June 3, 2020, by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Sheriffs Association, the Maine Prosecutors Association and the Maine Department of Public Safety, that said “there is no place for racism and police brutality in Maine or in our country. Maine law enforcement officers can and must do better.”
Healthy Acadia posted its re-worded statement on its website on June 22. That same day, Kane emailed Healthy Acadia to say he was standing by his decision to cut ties with the group.
Kane provided the Bangor Daily News with copies of emails he exchanged with Healthy Acadia staff about the group’s racial equity statement in response to a records request under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
Kane’s decision to terminate his agreement with Healthy Acadia occured around the same time that he submitted a request to Hancock County commissioners — which he later withdrew after the request was publicly criticized — to purchase helmets, batons and gloves for crowd control situations.
The recovery coaching program had been in place in Hancock County since 2017, first with Open Door Recovery Center involved and then just with Healthy Acadia after the Ellsworth treatment center shut down in 2019. The county has used community benefit funds it has received from windpower developers in the county’s Unorganized Territory to fund the program.
In Washington County, where Healthy Acadia continues to provide recovery coaches to inmates, county officials also initially objected to Healthy Acadia’s racial equity statement and considered cutting ties with the group. Flemings met last June with Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis and his jail administrator, Rich Rolfe, as well as with Kane, to talk it over, but Curtis and Rolfe decided to stick with Healthy Acadia.
Rolfe declined to comment on the Healthy Acadia racial equity statement, other than to confirm he and Curtis discussed it with Flemings and that, after thinking it over, they decided to continue working with the group. He said Washington County officials do not keep track of whether inmates who receive recovery coaching stay sober after they are released from jail, but he and Curtis fully support having recovery coaches available.
“It’s a huge benefit,” Rolfe said. “If they are addicted to substances, it often leads to illegal activity because they have to support their habit. They need resources and they need help to get past that.”
Kane acknowledged the importance of helping inmates overcome opioid addictions, saying that recovery coaching is just one program geared toward reducing recidivism and helping Hancock County inmates overcome addiction. An Eastern Maine Development Corp. program helps people released from the Ellsworth jail find housing and, in some cases, clothing suitable for job interviews. The jail also allows inmates to take anti-addiction medication behind bars.
“I think if someone has an illness or sickness or addiction, it’s our obligation to help them,” Kane said. “Opiates absolutely take over a person’s life and control them, and turn them into someone that they’re not.”
Kane and Jail Administrator Tim Richardson have been working since June to find another group that can provide recovery coaches, but they’ve had difficulty finding one, the sheriff said. However, he said, the county is close to working out an agreement with one organization — which he declined to identify — to restore coaching services at the jail.
Richardson has “been turning over rocks for months, trying to find somebody,” Kane said.
Healthy Acadia remains committed to actively fighting racism, and helping Hancock County Jail inmates when they’re released, even though the group no longer has access to them while they’re behind bars, Flemings said. But it is harder for the group’s recovery coaches to establish relationships with people fresh out of jail, she said, because of the demands and anxiety associated with re-entering society.
“We have consistently expressed to Sheriff Kane that our door is open for continued conversation and to find common ground,” Flemings said.