There Is Recovery in Prison

There Is Recovery in Prison - Page 2

By Henry Farrell 09/17/12

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.

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

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From here you bounce down to a place called Downstate. Bounce, but really you’re in leg irons and cuffs, Siamesed to another dude for the 12-hour trip. You piss in the back of the bus while your buddy looks the other way. At Downstate you are evaluated further: psych, escape risk, math, reading, TB. The place is beyond filthy. The officers are maybe more criminal at heart than their charges and you are held in solitary 20–23 hours per day. Six weeks and your hopes of a quick stay at boot camp dwindle to zip as you leave for Upstate, Gowanda and its program for drunk drivers.

DWI class is three hours a day, five a week, for 26 weeks. Lessons are centered on the bio-chemistry of addiction, criminal thinking, the family—everything you already knew but never applied because you hadn’t yet lost (or given away) enough. Material is presented by people who care and by others who you think might well have once cared. The whole thing is based on the therapeutic community model of recovery, which features a lot of holding others accountable for negative behavior—and which absolutely does not work in prison because you don’t want to get cut. No one snitches.

There is recovery in prison. You just have to keep the bullshit you must engage in separate from your soul and its improving health.

Each afternoon there is posted a notice of required appointments for the following day, broken down by inmate, time and location. Late January has a 10am appointment for you and it’s your divorce. The family court judge in Vermont has obligingly compressed the proceedings to a few short months and allowed for this to happen over the phone. You make a mental note that you need to actively try to stop loving your ex-wife.

Your recovery begins to look like it might not be happening. You lift weights outside in the snow like the Rocky movie where he fights the Russian. You attempt to erase your ex-wife from your “spank bank.” You try to cry and fail. You start asking God for help even though you never have and you feel guilty that these are foxhole prayers from an asshole—because your brother died unfairly four years ago and if God didn’t feel like helping him, why would he help a shit heel like you?

But it seems to work. You start to feel a rhythm and a release that’s increasingly a part of your day and a source of peace. Maybe the only.

Before long, you take over as chair of the Monday-night step/tradition meeting. Good and funny things happen in AA: A man called Singleton (always last names in Gowanda AA) asks when is it appropriate to take one’s relationship with one’s female sponsor to the next level. But AA here is so pure, perhaps due to its beginner-ness. Reworking the steps as a newcomer turns out to be powerful and you appreciate the urgency and lack of smugness that you groaned at on the street. You attend AA more and go to the weight pit less.

There is recovery in prison. You just have to keep the bullshit you must engage in—the getting over, the cops, the occasional violence—separate from that which you know must remain intact if you are ever going to make it: your soul and its improving health.

After a couple of months you join another group, a men’s (obviously) discussion forum called Cephas, begun after the Attica prison riots of 1971. Here, because these guys are not specifically alcoholic, there are a number of fellows from the “dark side”—or the sex-offender half—of the prison. When they speak you cringe, you get flushed, you think of their victims and your daughters and you judge, judge, judge.

Until finally you decide that maybe judgment isn’t so very good for your recovery, and all that prayer and humility stuff you were faking starts to leak from one side of your ginny mind and you think you might feel some fucking compassion, empathy, whatever. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not, but these spotty bits of light seem to have a Richter-Scale effect on the rest of your days. You think less about your wife banging some tattoo artist and more about how you’re going to be a better, sober dad, son and friend.

Just in time, too. It feels mighty lousy to sit in front of the parole board and lie about your recovery goals. You feel pretty lousy lying about anything these days, you find, to yourself or anyone else. You’re not sure if all the bad stuff about prison or the rare moments of transcendence has led you here, but you feel better and you feel like being good.


An enormous bald man named Sid has pulled Mr. Wood from me. The Mr. Wood who lately had his very strong fingers laced around my neck as I lay supine on my steel bed, having lost my footing on the slick polished floor. My leg had been pinched between his knee and the bed’s hard rail. Everyone who has gathered to silently observe disperses and heads to the 8am call for GED class, facility maintenance, anger management. The next day, in the cavern of the community shower, a guy named Tommy asks me what is that enormous blue-green/brown-yellow blotch leaching down the back of my right calf. For all my efforts to the contrary, there is a mark.