I live in a world filled with men whose personal drug addictions have shaped their lives. Drug addictions are common here, and they span the entire spectrum of abuse.
Over the length of my incarceration, I’ve witnessed terrible addiction-related moments, and these events have helped shape my views and desire to prevent future generations from walking the path of incarceration.
It seems to me that alcoholism receives little attention in today’s opioid driven media reporting, yet alcohol is responsible for the majority of addiction deaths every year here in the U.S. Driving while intoxicated is the most visible outcome of alcoholism, but less visible is the toll alcoholism takes on one’s body. Thousands of people die every year from alcohol related complications.
My family is no stranger to the deadly effects of alcohol. Years ago, my step-brother Kelly was killed by a drunk driver. In Kelly’s case, the driver went to prison. His sentence: two years in minimum security. Two years for taking a child’s life. Worse, once the offender was released, he went on to repeat the same mistake.
For many years I became angry whenever meeting someone incarcerated for drinking and driving. It was worse if I’d learned they’d killed someone in the process. Being incarcerated with individuals who were convicted of similar acts was difficult to accept, and I often found myself in conflict with these individuals.
Of all the addictions and all the men I’ve talked to about their addictions, the DUI crowd is the least repentant. There’s something about alcohol that causes uncompromising denial. But what? What is it about alcohol that causes this? Is it because it’s legal? Is it because alcohol is socially acceptable? I don’t know, but I suspect that each of these points are probably part of the answer.
I had a conversation with a 28 year old fellow named Trevor who was on his sixth incarceration for DUI. Yes, his sixth. This time around he was serving 18 months. As far as Trevor was concerned, he was handed an injustice by the court. So far, Trevor has served eight years of his life in DUI sentences. We have a saying in This World to describe Trevor. We say Trevor is doing “life on the installment plan.” The only person who doesn’t realize this is the person on the plan.
What’s striking to me here is Trevor’s level of denial about his drinking problem. It’s a common theme I’ve encountered over and over again with the alcoholics. Some of the excuses I’ve heard over the years span, “I only had a couple of beers,” or, “I wasn’t drinking,” or, “I’ll be more careful next time driving,” and even, “I’m a better driver after a couple of beers.” What? However, the grandest, most insane excuse I’ve ever heard came from Trevor.
It was a warm summer evening. I was walking with him on the yard, and I had asked him about his sentence.
“How long,” I asked, “is your sentence?”
“Eighteen months,” he said.
“Wow, that seems like a long time for a DUI.”
“That’s what I told my attorney!” he said. “When he told me that the prosecutor was only offering 30 months for a plea deal I couldn’t believe it. I told him, ‘No way. You go back and tell the prosecutor no deal.’ That’s how I ended up with 18 months.”
“Wow, 30 months?” I asked. Something, I thought, didn’t sound right. 90% of the time the DUI guys get a slap on the wrist, six months at most. “That seems like a long time for your first DUI, don’t you think?”
“Hmm? No, it’s not my first. And yeah, it’s a friggin’ long time.”
“How many times have you been locked up for DUI?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
“Well, no,” I said. “I’m just trying to understand why the prosecutor was trying to give you 30 months.”
“Man, I don’t know, because this is only my sixth time.”
“Oh,” I said, lamely. I couldn’t believe it was his sixth DUI sentence; that just blew me away. “But,” I said, “it is your sixth.”
“What?” he said indignantly. “What’s it matter if it’s my sixth or third? He still shouldn’t have given me 18 months.”
“Alright, I’m not judging you; don’t take it that way. I’m just trying to understand the courts logic, that’s all.”
“It’s not like I hurt someone,” he said.
I felt my heart pick up speed. I knew where he was going with this and I didn’t want to go down that road. Yet, my mouth kept going. It wouldn’t stop!
“Right,” I said. “But what if you did?”
“But I didn’t–”
“Right, but what if?”
“It doesn’t matter!”
“Well,” I said, “it sorta does.”
“How so?” he said. “You tell me how so”–his hand went out, stabbing at me an inch from my chest–“because what I do on my free time has nothing to do with anyone else. I’m not hurting anyone!”
I looked at the stabbing finger. I felt my teeth grind together.
I said: “Okay, I see your point. I get it. But, when we drink we aren’t at our sharpest, and–”
“Speak for yourself.”
“–driving is the poorest decision that–”
“I’ve been drinking since I was 12 and no one is going to tell me what I can and cannot do! Not the court, not this place, and certainly not you!” he said, finger stabbing inches from my face now.
“I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” I said. “But, what would you do if you had an accident and you hurt someone? Just think about it for a second.”
“I haven’t killed anyone yet!” he shouted at me.
I bit my tongue and tasted blood.
“I haven’t killed anyone yet!” he said again.
“You’re right,” I said. “You haven’t. But someday you might and it will be too late. You’ve got a problem, Trevor, and you need help.” I then turned and somehow walked away.
Prior to the conversation, Trevor had told me he already had to blow into a breathalyzer to start his car. It was a result of a previous DUI. Prior to that, he said he had been mandated to attend AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) twice a week at the local community center, and prior to that he told me he had ‘totaled’ most of the cars he’d ever owned while drinking and driving.
Trevor spent the remaining months of his sentence attending AA in the evenings. I thought that perhaps our conversation had spurred him to seek help. When I ran into him again, I asked him what made him want to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. Was it because of our conversation?
His answer? He had decided to attend AA so he could receive the good time credit toward early release. Plus, he had said, they always had coffee.
My experience with Trevor wasn’t unique. Most of the DUI guys I’ve talked to reacted similarly, though not nearly as aggressively as Trevor. Denial, denial, denial sums up most of these conversations and is representative of the type of thinking that’s involved with this crowd.
I’ve thought about the long current structure of addiction services within the institutional environment and wondered, What could be done better? I’ve concluded that the institutions simply aren’t the best equipped to help addicts. Yes, we have programs here designed to address addictions, but oftentimes participation is voluntary. A big fault that I see with these programs is that they all offer attendees a way to reduce their sentence by automatically adding “good days” every month toward early release. There is little accountability aside from program administrators requiring participants to attend classes and periodically participate during class sessions. As a result, most offenders view programming as a means to an end.
I would change this structure to remove automatic good days, and I’d introduce a standardized form that program administrators complete, detailing an individual’s class participation and understanding of session materials. These forms would be filed into the offender’s institutional file and made available to the court and the to offender’s attorney upon request. Early release consideration is then decided by the courts based on the detailed progress as revealed in program reporting. Change ‘automatic’ good days to ‘automatic pending court approval.’ This way program administrators are able to provide valuable input based on their observations, offer a meaningful way for the courts to hold an individual accountable, and to make informed decisions. This also gives offenders more incentive to take rehabilitative programming seriously, and when they do, there is a much higher chance of introspection and thus genuine change. Without introspection, there can be no rehabilitation.
AA is an excellent program, and time has borne that out. It’s sister program, NA (Narcotics Anonymous), is also an excellent program with a long and successful track record, and we have both programs here. What sets these programs apart from others is that offenders can begin attendance while incarcerated and continue once released, by attending any one of the AA and NA gatherings that take place everyday in this country. I think the solution to handling individuals with addictions is to immerse them in comprehensive addiction counseling, intensive inpatient (or outpatient) programs, and to marry this with oversight programs that hold an individual accountable to his recovery and sobriety.
Placing Trevor in prison over and over again serves no deterrent. It’s a terrible waste of public resources, and it serves no other purpose than to satisfy public thirst for punishment. Barring incidents where an individual is physically harmed due to the negligence of those gripped by addiction, incarceration should be the last resort.
For less than the amount it costs to incarcerate Trevor for six months, Trevor could spend three to four months in intensive community corrections based inpatient or outpatient drug rehabilitation programming. Not only would Trevor have a greater chance of realization and change, the courts would maintain meaningful oversight and accountability for an extended period of time. In addition, Trevor would be able to participate in community based projects that give back to the community while simultaneously attending rehabilitative counseling. Both efforts help to bring the individual to an inflection point, where one considers the consequences of his actions.
As a nation, we have a responsibility to meaningfully assist those gripped by addictions. It’s a win/win for everyone, and it’s the way to guide addicts back toward the path of recovery.