Thursday was my last day at work in a Tennessee prison where I attempted to bring drug and alcohol treatment to the inmates there. Those who know me are aware that the experience was less than positive, though I don’t regret my time spent there in the least. To be honest, I haven’t decided what to do with the information I have about the state of our country’s prison system, so for now I’m only going to try to shed light on what I observed in regards to the disease of addiction and those who lack access to treatment.

It might be surprising to know that I didn’t encounter any monsters in the prison, though I’m sure if myself or one of my loved ones were victims of the inmates’ crimes, I might have a different perspective. What I did see over and over, were men who had once been children, and in many ways still were. These men told about growing up in places where extreme violence, crippling poverty, and rampant addiction were the norm.  Very few of these men blamed the environment they grew up in for their crimes, even fewer understood that roughly seventy percent of the crimes committed are due to the distribution of drugs or because of impaired judgment due to intoxication. (Yes, even marijuana) And as is nearly always the case with addiction, what receives most of the blame from those in addiction is rarely the addiction itself. One of the hallmarks of the disease is that it blinds the person to the obvious, warping their thinking so that drugs and alcohol are the last thing pointed towards when it comes to putting a finger on why their life is in shambles.

When assessing someone with a drug and alcohol problem, one of the first things you try to find out is what age the man or woman was when they first began using. In the fifteen years I worked in treatment centers, where most of the clients were white and upper-middle class, the answer was usually fourteen or fifteen. In prison, the age of first use was generally around nine or ten. That age difference is significant because it tells me that instead of experimenting with drugs and alcohol with their peers in high school, these children were first intoxicated in their own home or neighborhood. It also tells me that the still-developing brains and psyches of these people are being affected so severely, we can only guess at the amount of damage incurred. What type of adult would think it a good idea to give a nine year old child heroin or marijuana? In my experience, it is the addict or alcoholic who encountered the same type of abuse while growing up, and who without treatment or education, views this behavior as normal. I have no doubt that there are families in America who have the disease of addiction running unchecked through their family tree for hundreds of years, each branch weakened by violence, dysfunction, and trauma. Are there individuals who are resilient enough to rise above their circumstances and transcend their environment? Yes. Is it reasonable to expect everyone to do this, insisting that they pull themselves up by their bootstraps? No.

I’m not educated enough on the prison system to know whether or not you can punish criminality out of a felon, but I do know that you can’t punish the disease of addiction out of an addict. Consequences may be helpful for pushing an alcoholic toward sobriety, but what changes the consciousness of a man or woman is education, awareness, love, forgiveness, and support.

Last thing: I learned a lot about myself while working at the prison the last six months. I realized that throughout my career I have taken too much credit for what I do, while underestimating how much of my success has been due to the support and understanding of co-workers, mentors, and friends. My mother always told me growing up that no man is an island. Whenever I try to go it alone, I pay a high price for my arrogance.

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