When the Solution is Part of the Problem

In October 2016, after fifteen years working in private treatment centers, I felt pulled to bring quality alcohol and drug treatment to those who have little access to this luxury. I left a comfortable, fulfilling job, and signed on with a company that contracted with the State to provide mental health services for a prison about an hour west from my home. I knew that the job would be a huge challenge, but I had taught meditation in jails around Nashville and found the experience rewarding, especially my interactions with the inmates. To say that I was naïve about the penal and political system is an understatement. I was completely unprepared for my confrontation with the Leviathan. Ultimately I had to leave after six months, realizing that I was about to be swallowed up by the negativity, apathy, and emotional violence.

The first day on the job, I knew I was in trouble when a member of the medical department’s leadership team gave his opinion on treating the inmates and providing them education on addiction. “Once a junky always a junky,” he told me, never batting an eye. This overwhelming belief permeates different levels of political and social strata in our country, further reinforcing the belief that addiction and criminality need to be punished instead of treated. Until this attitude is altered in individuals on a mass scale, the opiate epidemic and the violence infecting our country will continue to be a mountain that will be moved only slightly by knee-jerk legislation and intimations that drug dealers should be put to death.

Once I began my therapy groups at the prison, after waiting two months to be given the needed tools to do my job, myself and fourteen felons were placed in a 10×14 storage room without windows, heat, or security. Having no training on how to deal with prison culture or how to keep myself safe, I was given a two-way radio and told if anyone attacked me to make sure I hit the panic button. (They would get there as quick as they could) During the entire winter my group room stayed at about 48 degrees, the only heat source a portable heater that I had to buy with my own money. Despite the obstacles, I quickly lost my fear of most of the inmates, finding the majority to be no different from the clients I worked with in expensive treatment centers. Most had never heard of the disease concept of addiction, even fewer had ever been told that early childhood trauma fundamentally changes brain chemistry and increases the likelihood of addiction and mental illness. And the trauma that these men told me about was severe, extensive, and pervasive in both their culture, their family of origin, and in the prison itself.  For many, this trauma, combined with the lack of hope and opportunity in their community led to gang affiliations that promised safety, a sense of purpose, and the hope for financial gain. Don’t get me wrong, I encountered some frightening people there, who I hope stay in prison for the rest of their lives, but most were men, who like myself, loved their mothers, loved their children, and longed for happiness and freedom from suffering.

Drugs were rampant in the prison. From what I observed, though most security officers and staff did their best, the prison was so grossly understaffed that officers were not equipped to safely do their job, much less confront an inmate about having contraband. I almost always smelled marijuana when I walked into the pods and some prisoners were obviously strung out from different opiates. Suboxone was the most pervasive because it was the easiest to smuggle in, but I was told that for the right price most any drug could be obtained. I was also told that if you wanted, and had the money to do so, you could stay high for the duration of your prison sentence. So when you hear about the high rate of recidivism, understand that these men are being released into society with no understanding of the addiction that contributed to their incarceration, no skills for emotional regulation, and have brains that have been hard-wired by the penal system to remain locked in the ‘fight or flight’ position.

The feeling of powerlessness I touched on a daily basis working at the prison was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It fundamentally altered my views on a great many things and deepened my understanding of what sickens and damages our psyches. I want to emphasize that just as Philip Zimbardo put forth in The Stanford Prison Experiment,  a corrupt system weakens good people and destroys vulnerable ones. This is why I have little faith that politicians, many of whom are part of this system, will find the solution to the opiate epidemic. I myself, make no claims to have the answer, but as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor, I take the treatment of addiction seriously, understanding that those who are looking for a quick fix to a complex problem will be continually disappointed. I believe deeply that all people have the ability to alter their lives in a positive way and that every human being deserves the chance to free themselves from their own suffering.

I plan on doing one more post on my experiences at the prison, but want to end by saying that if you read this and feel the need to leave snarky, negative comments, please refrain. I will only delete them. Also, I want to acknowledge that the victims of crime have every right to feel the way they feel about how criminals have punished. I have no idea what it is like to lose a loved one to murder or gun violence or a drunk driver. Also, I must admit that I have some fear about writing on my time at the prison. I heard that when I left the management staff at the prison decided to slander my name by telling lies about why I left the job. But an inmate asked me not to forget him when I left, begged me to tell the truth about what I saw while I was there. So I will, because I tell my clients that sobriety and integrity are intricately bound together. Watching the courage of the clients who come into my office increases my own courage. I don’t want to let them down.




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