Every resident released from York County Jail will receive a ditty bag filled with items designed to help them as they transition to life beyond the jail walls. Here, those associated with Southern Maine Health Care, Maine Behavioral Healthcare, Sweetser and York County Jail pack the bags at the jail on a recent day. Tammy Wells Photo

ALFRED — When residents are released from York County Jail in Alfred, they will now be taking a ditty bag with them that contains an array of tangible items and information designed to help them as they transition from incarceration.

That bag includes a basic first aid kit, a fentanyl test kit, hand sanitizer, the opioid overdose drug naloxone, birth control, a snack or two and an array of information with phone numbers of organizations providing assistance for substance misuse, mental health resources, and more.

Volunteer Jean Bessette and York County Jail Lt. Lori Marks sort literature containing phone numbers and information about recovery programs, mental health resources and other initiatives designed to help residents as they’re released from York County Jail. The literature will go into harm reduction bags that contain snacks, a first aid kit, drug test strips, naloxone and other items given to departing residents Tammy Wells Photo

It may be the former jail resident who uses the test strips or the other items in the bag — or it might be someone they know — said Sheriff William L. King. Whoever ends up using the items — to make that phone call for help, to test a substance for fentanyl, or to reverse an overdose — benefits.

“The vast majority of those who become justice-connected have some type of substance use disorder and these harm reduction bags will provide each person with some available tools on which they may rely to ensure a safe and drug-free transition into the community,” said King in a statement.

Every resident — whether they are awaiting trial or convicted of a crime, whether they have been incarcerated for a few days before making bail or are someone who has just completed a nine-month sentence, gets one, he said.

The York County Sheriff’s Office, Maine Behavioral Healthcare, Southern Maine Health Care and Sweetser collaborated on the project, which King said is supported by a federal grant.


Here are some of the items that go into harm reduction bags that are being distributed to residents of York County Jail upon their release. Tammy Wells Photo

“These kits will be very helpful resources. (People) will have the tools ready if they need them,” said Valerie Compagna of Maine Behavioral Healthcare. Some of the resources include information on the REACH program, which provides six months of low barrier, intensive outreach and support for people struggling with opioid use, using the services of an outreach clinician, case manager and peer navigator. The program is available in York and Knox counties.

On Wednesday, Dec. 8, members of those organizations, along with volunteers from Sanford Housing Authority, which provides a clinical director consultancy for York County government, got together to fill about 250 bags.

It is a task that will be conducted on a regular basis — the jail averages about 113 releases a month, for about 1,400 releases annually, King estimated.

“When someone gets released, they’ll have the numbers to call,” he said. “It’s one more step we can take.”

York County Sheriff William L. King and York County Jail Administrator Nathan Thayer pack items for harm reduction bags distributed to those released from the jail. The kits contain an array of practical items and information designed with safety in mind. Tammy Wells Photo

York County Jail and York County government does provide other forms of assistance to people who misuse substances. Layman Way Recovery Center is a 24-bed residential program located on the York County Jail property in Alfred for approved, non-violent arrestees awaiting trial.

As well, York County Jail offers a Medically Assisted Treatment program for those incarcerated. When Nathan Thayer became interim jail administrator in late June, there was one resident enrolled in the MAT program. By the time he took the job on a permanent basis in September, there were 28 people enrolled and by the end of the first week in December there were 54, he said.


The ditty bags are one more way to offer help.

“We’re targeting high risk individuals,” said Dr. Jessika Morin. Ideally, she said, organizations want people to be in recovery, but sometimes, they are not ready. “It’s not enabling, it is harm reduction,” said Morin, a Southern Maine Health Care physician who is medical director of a program that targets prevention, treatment, and recovery.

According to the Maine Drug Data Hub, a collaboration between several state departments, the Governor’s Office and the University of Maine, there were 59 drug deaths in York County from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, six of which occurred in October. There were 515 drug deaths statewide from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31. Nonpharmaceutical fentanyl was the most frequent cause of death mentioned on the death certificate so far for 2021, in 336, or 76 percent of deaths statewide, and is often found in combination with other drugs, according to Maine Drug Data Hub. Heroin was reported as the cause in 4 percent of the statewide deaths, methamphetamine in 25 percent, and cocaine in 23 percent.

In recent weeks, police agencies in Maine and other New England states have issued warnings that in some instances, marijuana has been laced with fentanyl.

Thayer said jail residents often tell corrections staff that  they have been notified of a family member or friend who has overdosed. And, he said, because fentanyl is so prevalent and often laced in other drugs, he said, someone who is incarcerated for six months, released, and uses what they believe is heroin, can overdose easily.

“Hopefully, this will reduce the overdose deaths in York County,” Thayer said.

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