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There Is Recovery in Prison

An insane love of drinking while driving led me to my fourth DWI, and a prison bid in upstate New York. This is how I managed to find recovery behind bars.

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Prisoners at Clinton Correctional Facility, in Dannemora, NY. Photo via

By Henry Farrell

09/17/12

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Mr. Wood called me a “homo,” and so I have him in a headlock. Somehow he has me in one, too. We are trying to kill each other without shots to the face, without leaving any marks. We have never been friends.

I am living as a prisoner in Gowanda Correctional Facility, a repurposed mental institution—sprawling, brick and actually kind of pastoral—leased by a local tribe to the New York State Department of Corrections for the purpose of housing, punishing and rehabilitating drunk drivers and sex offenders. You can spot the window sashes here in at least one scene of The Natural, starring Robert Redford and filmed here in the ‘80s, while the place was otherwise empty. There is a rumor floating around that the tribe will not renew the lease, that the tribe wants a casino.

Behind me I have oceans of beer, four DWI convictions, two little girls and an ex-wife in an ex-house. I just kept drinking and breaking the law.

My bunkie, Mr. McQuinn, a disgraced 59-year-old attorney with 14 DWI convictions, now fairly levitates, pressed up against the Redford windows of our cell, attempting to stay as far away from the violence and Mr. Wood and me as possible. He knows to stay quiet and we know to stay quiet as we pitch from one wall to the other, slowly, cartoonishly crashing about my blown-steel bed. If we attract the attention of the officer on this floor or, just as bad, if we leave marks, we are both headed to the SHU, the Special Housing Unit, the Box. No questions asked.

***

Behind me I have oceans of beer, four DWI convictions, two little girls and an ex-wife in an ex-house; a job I always felt was below my abilities; and personal belongings scattered throughout Vermont and upstate New York. I think I might have been a bad person, although I believe I did many things in earnest. I was educated, I loved curry, indie rock and postmodern fiction. I miss my saddle shoes and the feel of a woman, my wife, coming to bed with wet, cold hair after a late-night shower. I’ve been through drug court, counseling, AA and self-reproach. I just kept drinking and breaking the law.

From about the age of 13—beginning with a choked-down Coors Light—beer has been my constant companion. I used all the drugs I could work into my life without consequence until about age 21, but I always came home to beer, and just knew we’d be together forever. Beer and me.

But then somewhere along the line I began (insanely) to associate beer with driving. That is, I’m not the type of drinker who goes to a bar, gets drunk and then drives away (although I certainly have done so). Much worse, I have a thing for driving while drinking. I have loved the feeling of cruising unimproved country roads in a sort of fast car with an ice-cold Heineken between my legs. And the fact that I enjoy this and have chosen (sober) to do it after two years or six months of what I defined as recovery tells me that I am indeed an alcoholic. That I can take this kind of risk. That I could lose my family or kill someone else’s. That I could lose my home, my freedom, my time.

So when I came into the prison system last year, I guess it wasn’t so much about admitting I was powerless over alcohol as being faced with a mountain of evidence I could no longer deny: four DWIs, divorced, estranged and nearly 40 years old.

***

Mr. Wood knows none of this. If he did, I’m convinced he would think me even more the effete asshole than he does now. And as we struggle to land punches in the bread basket, in our state-issued greens, I feel nothing—no pain, no consequence, no craving, no longing. I simply want to bring Mr. Wood to submission in a way that will leave no marks. It is my newest, fondest wish.

***

Despite all the stress, violence, chill, lousy food and abusive staff, I do believe there is recovery to be had in prison. And if you’re lucky, you can get a kind of default recovery before you even arrive at a place like this, right from the moment you get the DWI.

When you get the DWI, you know instantly that with your record you are going to prison. You spend the summer in exile from your wife and children. You drink your face off. You cry. You rarely eat. Fall arrives and with it a sentence of one to three years—with the slim possibility that you’ll be sent to SHOCK, a sort of boot-camp program, six months in duration.

You’re sentenced, remanded to county jail, and after a couple weeks you are transferred to state custody. You leave your very well-lit and frigid jail and travel north to the Shawshank-y and ancient Clinton Correctional Facility (aka Dannemora). Here you are processed: head shaved bald; state greens issued and donned, making you look and feel like a mop handle in a Glad bag; physical; brief mental eval (Q: Thinking of suicide? A: Not since lunch. Q: Ever had sex with a man? A: No.).

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