Nearly 40 attendees gathered on Monday night in Downtown Binghamton to discuss the intersection of criminal justice and the opioid epidemic.
The conversation was part of a monthly discussion group, Garden of Hope, in which participants discuss different aspects of addiction. The event was hosted by Truth Pharm, a grass-roots organization that helps people affected by the opioid epidemic.
“This topic is near and dear to me because I was incarcerated for six months,” said Grace Vallese, a member of Truth Pharm and resident of Choconut, Pennsylvania. “I’m an addict and it’s really important to me that we change the current outlook about how the criminal justice system is ran.”
Vallese and the other participants listened as Andrew Pragacz, a fifth-year graduate student studying sociology at Binghamton University, and Kevin Revier, a sixth-year graduate student studying sociology at BU, spoke on the relationship between substance-use disorder and incarceration in a presentation titled “Garden of Hope: The Criminal Justice Response to the Opioid Epidemic.”
Both men are founding members of Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST), a two-year-old organization created by 10 BU graduate students. Pragacz said the founders of JUST were inspired to create a platform to effect change in the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration. Since their conception, the group has been collaborating with Truth Pharm on various events.
“JUST is part activism, part current issues and part academic,” Pragacz said. “Because Truth Pharm works with people that have [substance-use disorder] and their families that are suffering from the fallout of that, it was a natural fit and collaboration.”
Each of the presentation’s two parts, “Jail is Not the Answer, So Abolish It” and “Policing Drugs as Harm Inducing,” touched on issues such as racial disparities in incarceration rates, harm-reduction techniques, health care in jails, the dangers of a jail-sanctioned detox and problems associated with re-entry.
In the latter half of the program, Revier noted that in August Truth Pharm held the “Trail of Truth” march, which commemorated 87 people who died from drug overdoses.
“We found that half of those people had been incarcerated, six died within a week and two died within a month of being released from jail,” Revier said.
Tinamarie Gunther, a resident of Endwell and member of JUST, and Grant Loew, a senior majoring in environmental science and president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, later spoke on important rights to know when dealing with law enforcement.
“People often forget we are equal to officers,” Loew said. “We have the same human rights as they do, they’re just enforcing the laws and hold the authority, and often that authority is abused.”
Benita Roth, associate professor of sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies at BU, attended the program as part of her research on Truth Pharm. She said it is important to hold events like these because of the opioid epidemic’s impact on the greater Binghamton area.
“It is killing people and disrupting life for many members of this community,” Roth said. “Groups like Truth Pharm and JUST are pushing very hard to try to get our elected officials to address the epidemic as the public health emergency it is.”
At the end of the event, attendees had the opportunity to receive training on how to use naloxone, a drug that can stop someone from overdosing. They were taught the signs of an overdose, when they should administer the drug, how many times they should administer it and when to notify emergency medical services. Each newly trained participant received a bag with naloxone and aiding items.
According to Alexis Pleus, founder and president of Truth Pharm, all organization events aim to breakdown the stigmas those with substance-abuse problems face.
“I just want people to realize that addiction is a disease and that everybody deserves a chance at life,” Vallese said. “If people gave up on me, I would not be here right now. Everybody deserves a chance.”