The Santa suit comes out this time of year, but Chuck McClain hands out no-nonsense guidance every day in his work supervising the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Treatment Program.
He is one of the few high-level civilian staff in the Sheriff’s Department, and has served as a substance-abuse treatment counselor in the jails since 1999.
He said his 15 years with the county have been the highlight of his career.
“I walked into the jail and did the first group, and I felt like I was home,” he said.
McClain, 66, retired this month, although he hopes to come back and help the department implement treatment programs at the new Santa Maria Jail.
The Sheriff’s Treatment Program has a special housing unit in the Main Jail with participants who are court-ordered or volunteered to participate.
Countywide budget cuts haven’t spared the program, which is left with just two counselors now that McClain is retiring.
McClain said the best counselors have criminal records, because they’ve experienced substance abuse personally, himself included.
“I never did time, but that was my life,” he said. “I just never got caught.”
In a Sheriff’s Department, those experiences do make it hard to get new employees cleared for duty.
At its peak, the STP had about 175 people going through the program inside the jail and with outpatient services. Since 1999, the program has served 10,293 people, which has wide-reaching community impacts.
“So if you take away the alcohol or drugs for those folks, the crime wouldn’t have happened,” McClain has said.
Program graduates are much less likely to re-offend than other jail inmates, with a 34 percent recidivism rate (percentage of inmates who will be rearrested after their release) compared to the jail’s 75 percent.
“Very few programs can claim something like that,” McClain said.
That success comes from having a captive audience — they literally can’t leave — and a mixture of education and clinical treatment, he said.
His style is more confrontational than most, but the idea is the same: to get people involved in their own sobriety.
“You can literally see the light bulb go on,” he said.
People used to sign up to look good for the court, but the program’s reputation has grown inside the jail and in the community. More inmates respect the program and genuinely want to participate now, McClain said.
“It’s been a privilege for me to work at the jail, the highlight of my career,” he said. “When I walk around town, people call out my name and give me a big hug — I get to help people get back their families.”
The monthly barbecues for program alumni are well-attended, and some of the people never even participated in the Sheriff’s Treatment Program, they just want to be part of the recovery environment.
Sheriff Bill Brown does plan to expand the program with the new jail, department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.
A big part of that is the Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry complex, a transitional housing facility for released inmates, which is up for a $38 million state grant.
If it’s approved and built, more than half the inmates housed there would go through the Sheriff’s Treatment Program, Hoover said.
The program is “invaluable” and the Sheriff’s Department will start looking for McClain’s replacement next year, she said.
McClain will be spending more time with his family and his wife, Linda, at their home in Carpinteria. He doesn’t think he’ll be very idle, since he’s been working full-time since age 9.
He’s been a substance-abuse counselor for 30 years, and wants to help expand the program into the new jail facilities once they’re finished, and Brown wants the same.
“Chuck McClain is a beloved member of the treatment community, and has changed countless lives for the better through his delivery and management of the Sheriff’s Treatment Program,” Brown said. “We wish him the best in his retirement and look forward to hopefully having him return as a part-time employee in the future.”