Kentucky Jail program has new leader and sees better results Alcohol and drugs put an end to man's hopes for an NFL career

By Todd Kleffman

The Advocate Messenger

DANVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- As a self-described alcoholic bully who likes to fight, Jared Thomas knows one when he sees one.

And Thomas saw one when William Northington entered the Substance Abuse Program at the Boyle County Detention Center.

"He's big and aggressive. He's got scars on his face. I knew the other guys would be listening to him," explained Thomas, director of the SAP. "I knew if we couldn't get him on our side, we'd have to take the power away from him."

Northington turned out to be a team player of the first order. He came into the program April 6, his fourth stab at rehab during a life spent in and out of prison on alcohol- and drug-fueled charges, including assault on a police officer. After taking on leadership roles within the Boyle jail, he's leaving this week a free man, his parole earned by completing the SAP.

A construction worker all of his life, Northington, 45, now plans to go to college. He wants to be a substance abuse counselor.

"I grew more as a person these last six months than I have in the past 20 years," Northington said.

Thomas himself is not far removed from Worthington's shoes. Sober just 3 1/2 years, Thomas, 43, finally got serious about his own rehabilitation after he squandered a life of privilege as a football star and came out on the other side a man motivated to help steer other men out of the ditch and back on the right road.

"I've been drinking my whole life. I was always the wildest kid," Thomas said. "In high school, I probably drank three or four times a week. By the time I got to college, I was pretty much out of control. I was a bully, drinking and fighting all the time. Nobody would arrest me because I was a ballplayer. They just took me home or told me to leave. There were no consequences for my behavior."

A West Virginia native, Thomas went to Marshall University, where he played free safety on the football team for three years before finishing out his college career at Morehead State.

"I was known as a 'hitter' and I did alcohol like I played the game -- wide open," he said.

Thomas said he was good enough that his former coach, Rex Ryan -- now head coach of the NFL's New York Jets -- invited him to try out for the Arizona Cardinals. That was about the time his father died of alcoholism in 1992, and Thomas said his father's death took him further down the path of addiction.

"I tried cocaine for the first time then, and I was instantly addicted. I went from sniffing coke to smoking crack just like that. It happened so fast."

All of that "drinking and drugging" put an end to any hope Thomas had of making an NFL roster. "Instead of 6' 2," 220, I came in at 6' 2," 185," he said.

Thus began a downward spiral that cost Thomas jobs, homes, cars, a marriage, time with his son and all of his friends. It led to four felony drug convictions, the last of which came in Lexington. Prepared to spend a year in prison, Thomas was granted a reprieve by Fayette Circuit Judge Sheila Isaac, who sentenced him instead to rehab. It was his fourth try at recovery.

"She got me into rehab at a time when I couldn't talk my way out of it anymore," Thomas said.

After completing the rehab regimen in Ash Camp in eastern Kentucky, Thomas stayed sober for a year before returning there as a counselor and became director at the Boyle County Detention Center about seven months ago. He works for West Care, which operates rehab centers across the country, including the one at Ash Camp.

Jailer Barry Harmon said the Boyle jail began operating an SAP in March.

"We tried hiring our own individuals (to run the program), and that didn't work out too well," Harmon said.

West Care came in August last year and struggled until Thomas was brought in with a new staff, Harmon said. Now, the program is hitting its stride. It scored well on a Department of Corrections audit conducted in September and is awaiting certification, which will make it only the second accredited SAP in a county jail in the state, Harmon said.

Such standing will help the detention center maintain a steady flow of state inmates into the future as beds in treatment facilities are in short supply. The county receives $31.75 per state inmate per day, which goes toward covering the operating expenses at the jail. The state pays an additional $9 per inmate per day for SAP inmates, money that goes to West Care for its services.

The 40-bed SAP at the Boyle jail takes up an entire wing, with two dorms holding 20 inmates each, a meeting room and an office for Thomas, counselor Laura Shwarz and manager Jordan Robbins, who graduated from Ash Camp with Thomas as his counselor.

It is set up as a therapeutic community which adheres to the 12 steps of recovery and establishes a hierarchy of leadership roles within each dorm which are assigned by Thomas and the staff to individual inmates. There are seven cardinal rules, including no cussing, no violent behavior and no acting out sexually, that if violated lead to automatic dismissal from the program.

Thomas said it's important to remove the "jailhouse mentality" from participants to teach them accountability and respect for themselves and others rather than lying, bragging and generally acting in a self-serving manner. Oftentimes, that involves moving inmates out of their comfort zones.

"If they're talking all the time, we make them shut up. If they're shy and don't participate, we make them get involved," Thomas explained.

Inmates are called upon to police each other's behavior and solve disagreements among themselves. As they earn their way up the ranks within their community, they teach classroom lessons or preside over group meetings.

"They've got their own government. They take responsibility for everything. They punish each other. They're responsible for the bulk of their own treatment," Thomas said.

All addicts, himself included, look at themselves as repeated failures and lose all hope, Thomas said. Earning respect from the staff and fellow participants and working up to leadership roles within the community help to repair that damage and are essential parts of recovery, he said.

"They've got to experience some successes in the six months they are here, they've got to have some achievements, "he said.

Northington, the inmate who is graduating this week, worked his way up to community coordinator, the second highest position in the program. His eyes shine with pride as he shows off the resume and cover letter he's prepared for his re-entry. But it's a piece of green paper with "William" written on top that he seems to hold most dear.

Written on it in the various hands of his fellow SAP participants are phrases like "good teacher," "a positive influence," "open-minded," "speaks well" and "dedicated."

No one would have written those things about him a year ago, he said.

"They would have said 'aggressive, hard-headed, disrespectful, selfish, self-centered bully,' Northington said. "I used to be known for the wrong I'd do. Now I'm known for the wrong I won't do."

Published: Tue, Oct 11, 2011