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What Long-Term Recovery Looks Like From Prison

Two decades into my sentence and one decade clean, I'm embarking on a drug program with 130 other men who are close to release. No one wants to come back here. But the route to recovery is harder behind bars.

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"I’m kind of to the point where I feel that if 20 years in prison hasn't deterred me,
there's no way a 10-month program will." Photo via Shutterstock

By Seth Ferranti

06/16/13

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I am near the end of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. I’m currently spending my 20th consecutive summer away from my loving wife and family.

Taking into account my good-time credits—prisoners earn up to 54 days a year for good behavior—I’m scheduled for release in November 2015. But with the successful completion of the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), I can get up to another year off. With those 12 months—plus another six for a halfway house placement—I should be leaving Federal Correctional Institution Forrest City, Arkansas in May 2014, after over 21 years of continuous incarceration since the age of 22.

I’ll find that technology has advanced significantly since 1993. But for a recovering drug addict like me, that’s not so high on the list of worries.

RDAP is a 500-hour, 10-month intensive treatment program intended to reduce relapse and recidivism, kind of like Betty Ford for the incarcerated. To participate, you’re moved to a special unit within the prison, which is where I’ve been living for over a year now.

I’ve looked forward to RDAP throughout my incarceration, not to combat my addiction, but to get the time off—I mean, who wouldn't? 

I’m still not fully participating in the program; I’m designated “RDAP Wait,” as in, waiting to get in. But I’m part of what they term the Modified Therapeutic Community (MTC)—that’s 130 prisoners of different nationalities, ethnic groups, criminal persuasions and lengths of sentences living on this unit. It can be volatile.

The 12 Steps are not the route to recovery here. Although NA or AA meetings take place in many prisons, they aren’t part of RDAP and they aren’t available at this facility. The prisoners and Drug Treatment Specialists (DTS)—prison staffers who specialize in treatment and psychology—don't even talk about drugs or addiction that much. It’s more centered on our attitudes, belief systems and expectations. It’s designed to change “criminal thinking.” Because with us, drugs and the criminal lifestyle go together. Committing crimes and getting away with it can give you a buzz just like substances.

I know about AA and NA from personal experience, though I never paid too much attention. Back when I was a troubled teenager, struggling with drugs, I was enrolled in various rehabs as my parents sought help for my destructive behavior. I attended NA meetings, worked on the Steps and recited the Serenity Prayer, to no avail: I ended up in prison—my ”rock bottom.”

But now I’m over 10 years clean and sober, and I did it on my own. No NA or AA, and no RDAP—just my own persistence in trying to live a better life. Some might see that as an easy feat, since I’m locked up. But drugs are everywhere behind these fences—even in the RDAP unit, I’m still around some people who use daily. I have not smoked a joint—marijuana being my drug of choice—since summer 2002, when I was at FCI Fairton in New Jersey.

In this unit, you’re meant to contribute to the creation of a social organization that fosters positive psychological and lifestyle change. That’s the theory. RDAP emphasizes pro-social thinking and behavior, focusing on participants' emotions, perceptions and interactions. At times it can be a bit dramatic; everyone in here faces their own challenges.

"My biggest challenge is coming into RDAP with a prior recovery background, namely 12-step fellowships," says Ronald, an African American in his forties who is a self-described "crackhead." He’s been in prison for seven years on a crack cocaine charge and has been drug-free since the day he got locked up. "I expected RDAP to be more like AA, as far as the principles of recovery, and having those expectations I forgot that we are in prison and everyone isn't going to have those same principles."

Another prisoner in the program, Michael, is a white, recovering alcoholic in his thirties. He’s been locked up for five years on an Internet porn case and has also been clean the whole time. He too has doubts. "Programs like RDAP—where you live in a unit that is on RDAP time, but the compound is not on that time—work better out in the world,” he says. “It doesn't support ongoing sobriety, because most people that come into this program are looking for the time off, and looking to lock in the six months’ halfway house."

I plead guilty: I’ve looked forward to RDAP throughout my incarceration, not to combat my addiction, but to get the time off—I mean, who wouldn't? A year off your sentence is a hell of an incentive. I arrived with a lot more time still left to do than most participants. Usually prisoners aren’t admitted to RDAP until they’re 28 months short—that time is then occupied by the 10-month program, the six months’ halfway house and the 12 months off. I moved to the unit with 44 months left. Surprisingly, I think it has helped me. Before I moved here I thought I was recovered, or as recovered as you can get while doing time. Now I’m not so sure.

"Most prisoners face numerous road blocks to change," a DTS staffer tells me. "The first being, 'I'm just here for the time off.' There are others also: 'I'll just do the bare minimum and hope I don't get called on;' 'It doesn't matter what I do, nothing will ever change;' 'I can scam my way through the program,' and 'the world should suit me, not me suit the world.' If these guys can overcome these road blocks,” he continues, “they have a real chance. This is what we teach." Honesty, the program also teaches, is the foundation of change; it can be hard to be honest in recovery—and even harder in prison.

David, a US-based Mexican in his twenties, who came into the RDAP unit with me, has experienced this. "The drug program keeps me away from my homeboys on the yard; I'm doing better in this unit than I would in another," he says. He’s been inside for four years on a meth charge. "I just quit drinking and smoking weed like six months ago. I'm trying to stay sober, trying to quit smoking, trying to stay out of trouble so I can go home to my family." But he faces tremendous peer pressure out on the compound: "My homeboys wanting me to drink, wanting to smoke, wanting to hang out,” he says. “I can't tell them the truth, that I want to stop smoking and drinking. They won't accept that. So I try to avoid them but it’s difficult." Many prisoners face this problem. The climate in prison is just not conducive to recovery—but we don’t have the choice of changing our location for the better.

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