Sobering center considered as an alternative to prison in Fairbanks

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Recent deaths in Alaska prisons have underscored problems with jailing severely intoxicated individuals, pointing to the need for an alternative approach. Bethel operates a sobering center, where care and treatment are the focus, and a similar facility is being explored as an option in Fairbanks.

State Title 47 requires temporary protective custody of an individual incapacitated by drugs or alcohol in public. It’s motivated by a public safety issue Fairbanks City Mayor John Eberhart says is elevated in Fairbanks.

“Where are we going to take them,” Mayor Eberhart asked. “What do you do if it’s thirty or forty below zero without a sleep off center? It’s time to do that, it’s time for a sleep off center.”

Currently the City works with the Fairbanks Downtown Association to run a community service patrol, to transport intoxicated individuals home, to jail or to the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Mayor Eberhart says he’s trying to bring together local groups and agencies to talk about opening a sleep off center in Fairbanks.

“I put out an email to try to organize a meeting of hopefully the hospital, Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), the police chief, myself, and others to start talking about a sleep off center,” said Mayor Eberhart.

The sleep off center approach is successfully employed in other Alaska communities. Kevin Tressler manages a sobering center in Bethel.

“Prior to this program starting, you’d see a lot more intoxicated individuals around town,” Tressler said. “If you had to go to the ER for any particular reason, the waiting room was packed full it took a really long time to get in to get triaged.”

The 16 bed center, provides a place for inebriated individuals, who are triaged by staff, and then allowed to stay for up to twelve hours.

Richard Robb, Director of Residential Services at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), says there are several ways to measure success of the program and the center.

“A lot of it is what we can do to help people,” said Robb. “One of the ways we have really increased in the past year is we’ve measured and we’ve pushed the intervention of SBIRTS. That’s Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment,”

The program, which Robb refers to as a “harm reduction model”, is a partnership between YKHC, Alaska Mental Health Trust and Bethel Police Department. Robb says after patients sober up, center staff ask them about their drinking, and whether they’d like to be referred to longer term treatment.

“It’s better for everybody and it’s a cost saving measure too,” Robb said. “Because staying a night here is a lot cheaper for the tax-payer than staying the night in the ER.”

The Bethel center is an attempt to avoid what happened to Fairbanks resident Gilbert Joseph last summer. Joseph who was picked up intoxicated and brought to Fairbanks jail, died in his cell at Fairbanks Correctional Center. The Title 47 protection case gone wrong is one of several highlighted in a recent Department of Corrections report.

Rhonda Pitka, the first chief of the village of Beaver, where Joseph was a tribal member, wants to work with Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks to make sure the state is accountable for their actions.

“I feel like that contributed a lot to his death. He would probably still be alive,” said Pitka. “If he wasn’t in prison that night, if wasn’t in the jail that night. If he had gotten medical care he would probably still be alive,”

A local resident has reached out to Mayor Eberhart about a possible sleep off location in South Fairbanks. But Mayor Eberhart says he just in the early stages of trying to find funding for a project to address these issues here in Fairbanks.

“It’s a question of how do you it and who pays for it,” Eberhart said.