Hocking Correctional Facility is at the top of a steep hill, surrounded by tall pine trees and the sloping mountains of Appalachia
It’s raining and overcast as Jason Ware of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction fumbles with a large set of keys. It’s clear no one has been inside the jail for months — the gates squeak open and Ware swats at cobwebs that hang in the doorway.
Despite the ominous setting, Rick Hodges from Ohio University’s College of Health only sees potential.
“We’re trying to make a cultural difference here,” he says, looking around at the empty dormitory. “This is a place of healing and recovery.”
Hodges is part of the Appalachian Recovery Project, a coalition that formed in March 2018 when Hocking Correctional closed. The group is made up of public health officials, university professors and the local sheriff and judge.
Together, they’ve come up with a new use for the prison: They want to turn it into a jail for women who committed misdemeanors and are struggling with addiction.
“Appalachia has been ground zero of the opioid crisis,” Hodges says. “This is a very poor area of the state and the country, they don’t necessarily have the resources to combat the disease that other areas might, and so being able to find a facility here is just ideal.”
The facility is specifically geared towards women because of a shortage of bed space for female inmates, Hodges says. The group hopes that Hocking could provide women with a chance to get treatment before it’s too late.
Studies have found that when inmates addicted to opioids are released, their chances of fatal overdoses are significantly higher than the general population.
“The nice thing about this project is that the providers that are going to be here are the same providers that are going to inherit these folks when they go back to their communities,” Hodges says. “So there will hopefully not be a breakdown in service.”
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction agreed to lease the facility for $1 a year, as well as chip in up to $7 million over the next 10 years to help get it up and running again. The Appalachian Recovery Project aims to operate the facility with a mix of funding, including federal and local grants, private sources and Medicaid.
Along with treatment, inmates would also get help with job training.
Local activist Janalee Stock helps women in recovery, and supports the idea for the facility. But she says the area doesn’t lack job training — it lacks good jobs.
“Poverty and the difficulty to finding meaningful work is part in parcel of what contributes to that feeling of hopelessness that can lead to, ‘Well, let’s just take a drug and we won’t have to feel what we’re feeling,’” Stock said.
There are many obstacles to repurposing the old prison, but Hodges hopes the new facility will welcome its first inmate in March — just one year after Hocking closed its gates.