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January 20, 2005 - The Wisconsin State Journal (WI)

Prison Programs Help, But No Match For Temptations On Outside

The Low After The Highs: An Estimated 70 Percent Of Inmates Have Some Problem With Drugs Or Alcohol

By Phil Brinkman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Even today, five years since he last smoked crack cocaine, Keith Thomas can still feel the tug of his addiction.

The owner of a successful business that markets documentaries about ex-cons returning to society, Thomas is fit and exuberant and cuts a clean profile in his Izod shirts. He's in a committed relationship and has employees who depend on him. He helps counsel offenders, especially young black men, who can't seem to stay off the prison treadmill.

Yet, when he drives by the corners on Madison's South Side where he used to buy crack, it still stirs a craving for the intense pleasure the drug once gave him.

"That kept me from getting clean for years," Thomas said. "Because when I would get that feeling, to me, that was a sign to go use."

That crack was able to maintain such a hold on Thomas shows how drugs and alcohol don't discriminate in picking their users.

The product of a well- adjusted, successful, middle-class family, Thomas got turned onto cocaine while attending UW-Madison. Before long, he was dealing and stealing. He held various jobs, but the drug always came back like an obsession.

At first, he justified his habit by telling himself it was just recreational. He wasn't like those losers out there strung out on dope; his parents owned a highly regarded medical clinic in Mequon. One sister was a doctor, another a lawyer.

Then, days before Christmas 1999, Thomas robbed a cab driver of $30 by intimating he had a weapon. It was his first armed robbery. And it let him know he wasn't that special after all.

"That's when I really knew I had crossed a line," said Thomas, 43. "That let me know that - you know what? - there is not anything I'm not willing to do in order to get more drugs."

Statistics are Revealing

By most estimates, at least 70 percent of the men and women who enter Wisconsin prisons each year have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

Various national surveys suggest at least two offenders in five were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their crimes. For certain crimes, such as murder and sexual assault, the percentage is even higher.

Among all the factors that contribute to crime - bad parenting, poor choice in peers, inadequate schooling, lack of job skills - probably nothing guarantees a trip to prison more than the compulsive use of drugs or alcohol, say professionals who work with drug- addicted offenders. Probably nothing could do more to stem the tide than for the state to use its vast resources to help offenders break those habits, they add.

"Incarceration is a consequence for behavior, it's not a treatment," said John Smith, clinical director for Tellurian, a statewide counseling organization that provides residential drug and alcohol treatment. "We have somehow gotten to the point where we think . . . if we send somebody to jail, then they will learn their lesson and they will come out and they won't use drugs or alcohol again. It just doesn't work that way.

"People that have a substance abuse problem have a neurochemical disease. Unless you treat that, it won't just get better."

Tough to Beat Drug Urge

Unless they've been there, it's hard for most people to understand the feeble effect of willpower alone to fight a crack addiction, former users say.

Even to those intimate with cocaine, crack gives users a uniquely intense high. The disappointment for them comes in how short the high lasts, and how subsequent highs never quite measure up to the first one.

That's the particular trap many crack users fall into, and the reason the crack trade is such a huge contributor to crime: Users keep chasing that first high, and they'll abide nothing standing in their way. They become paranoid, their behavior erratic.

"People who just snorted cocaine, they went out and did stuff. They had a job, they drank socially," said Jennica Stein, who was turned onto the drug at 19 after years of heavy drinking and drug use. "When you do rock cocaine, you hide in your apartment. The only time you go out is to get more. The phone was my main connection to the outside world, and it was to a drug dealer."

Stein, who served 21 months in prison on drug charges, said she would sometimes stay up for days on end smoking crack. "It was to where I was falling asleep getting high," she said.

Although she went through treatment in prison, she says it was only a residential program and Alcoholics Anonymous after prison that has kept her sober. She is now a full-time student at Madison Area Technical College, where she also has a job in shipping and receiving.

Fighting Addiction

Drug and alcohol programs are offered at most of the state's medium- and minimum-security prisons. But the programs often have long waiting lists. In many cases, offenders are released before they can be enrolled, only to get on another waiting list for community-based programs.

Participants also complain the classes include an unhelpful mix of addicts seriously trying to beat their illness and slackers who mainly see the sessions as a ticket to early release or transfer to a minimum-security prison.

What's more, no one can say how effective the prison programs are, either at helping offenders stay sober or stemming crime once they're released. As with much corrections policy, lawmakers have not asked for, nor does the state Department of Corrections collect, any data on the success rate of program participants.

Correctional spending on drug and alcohol programs, both in and out of prison, has grown nearly 18 percent over the past seven years, to $19.6 million. Federal aid adds an additional $6 million to that.

But from interviews with current and former inmates, counselors and others, it's clear that what progress inmates with addictions do make in prison treatment programs is often reversed when they get out. The vices in the community are simply no match for the promises they made in the relative safety behind bars.

"When a guy goes into prison, he gets healthy, and then he goes out and gets right back in (to crime)," said David Bracey, who has spent more than 15 years in prison on various offenses, most recently a four-year stint for robbing a restaurant so he could buy drugs. "It's just like a pig: A pig, I don't care how much you wash it off, he's going to get right back in the mud."

"When I was under the influence, I didn't think or care about the consequences," Bracey said. "I had a disease; I had to feed it. My disease said, 'Get out there and get the money. Feed me. I don't care who you got to step on.'."

Punishment Versus Treat ment

Because of the close relationship between drugs and crime, it's little surprise policymakers have trouble distinguishing between treatment and punishment. The challenge for those who work in the criminal justice system is deciding who is best served - and who can be trusted to be - outside of prison.

"For those people who either continue to drive drunk or who are addicted to the criminal lifestyle that goes with the use of drugs or alcohol, the only way to treat those people is in a confined setting," said Sheryl Graeber, superintendent for the state's Drug Abuse Correctional Center in Winnebago, which provides intensive six-month residential treatment for offenders with substance abuse problems.

"For other individuals who seem to be managing most of their lives in the community but have an addiction problem, those folks don't need to be in a confined setting."

It is a myth that the state prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders. Most people doing time have been convicted of multiple offenses, led by violent crimes but also including property and drug crimes. (Federal law is generally harsher, and judges have far less discretion in sentencing federal drug crimes.)

Countless others - prison and court records don't say how many - were arrested on more serious charges but convicted of a lesser offense as part of a plea bargain.

In most cases, judges, corrections officials and counselors say, drug offenders sentenced to prison have been given numerous opportunities to reform while in the community and failed.

"In all addictions the motivator is when the events in your life simply are too out of control and either you recognize you need to do something or somebody recognizes it for you," Graeber said.

Yet, history is also replete with offenders whose underlying addictions were not treated in prison. No more capable of making the right choices than when they went in, many go back to their old habits, commit more crimes and leave a trail of new victims in their wake.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Prison officials tried to prepare Keith Thomas for returning to society prior to his release from prison in October 1999 on drug, battery and theft charges. He had gone through a series of behavioral modification programs, including confronting his drug addiction.

Thomas didn't find the programs terribly relevant - he says the one-size-fits-all approach by the mostly white instructors didn't speak to his experience as a black man in the inner city - but he played along to appear compliant and gain early release.

With nowhere to live and $16 in his pocket, Thomas was put up by the DOC in a seedy rooming house on Spring Street in Madison until he could get on his feet.

"Basically, it was a crack house, house of prostitution. All the local homeless hung out there," Thomas said of the building that has since been converted to upscale student housing.

Drug dealers and prostitutes would descend on the building - and on the budget motels where the DOC also rents rooms - on Tuesdays, the day most inmates are released from prison.

"They know these guys are probably going to want to score something. And if they're not going to want to score something, they're going to give them something," Thomas said. "Because they know if they give them something, after that first one, then they'll spend all their money. We used to call it putting the jumper cables on them. You jump-start them."

Thomas told his parole officer he couldn't make it; the temptations were too great. He said she told him to keep his door closed, and enrolled him in an outpatient drug treatment program. But it wasn't enough, and he started using again.

Two days before Christmas, he held up the cab driver. Arrested later that night, Thomas said all he wanted the police to do was kill him. By then, he said, he had been smoking crack for two days straight. He had bottomed out.

Ultimately sentenced to five years in prison, Thomas refused the prison programs that had had no effect before and began an independent study through literature his girlfriend sent him of how his addiction - and the crimes he committed to support it - were contributing to the destruction of the African American community.

"When I started looking at that, I started to see how my behavior . . . was hurting my community, and how I was perpetuating this continued political and economic oppression" of his neighbors, said Thomas. "I realized I had to change my value system."

It was, for the first time in Thomas' life, the moment of clarity any recovering addict knows well: the time when he was ready to change.

If there were a silver bullet in fighting addiction and drug-related crime, experts say, it would be finding a way to hasten that moment and then seizing it when it comes.

That could mean providing more money for services to cut down on waiting lists; smaller caseloads for probation and parole officers so they can respond to a crisis quicker; making services centrally available rather than expecting offenders to take a bus from one end of town to the other; giving judges more options to order treatment; and in many cases, the ability to incapacitate an offender long enough for him to get treatment.

Community Support

Having probation and parole officers work with relatives, employers or some other person whom the offender doesn't want to disappoint can often prove effective, say people who work with offenders.

That's what happened to Bracey. When he was released from prison in October 2002, Bracey was determined to get off what he called the "goofymobile" of drugs, crime and prison.

With support from his patient and understanding wife, Pam, and through his newfound Muslim faith, he stayed sober. But he struggled to find meaningful work. Like most ex-convicts, employers were reluctant to take a chance on him.

In June, he got a position as a paid apprentice for a local social organizing group, working with returning offenders. Things started looking up. Then, earlier this fall, he relapsed.

"I just thought I could have a Miller Time. But I can't have a Miller Time. One is too many, and a thousand isn't enough."

This time, however, he had a safety net. People around him told him he needed help before he hurt anyone. He enrolled in a residential treatment program.

"This thing could have gone many other ways, perhaps another prison term, perhaps death, because it's a life-and-death situation," said Bracey. "I had people who believed in me."

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