What Long-Term Recovery Looks Like From Prison

By Seth Ferranti 06/16/13

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.

Image: 
prison-recove.jpg
"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

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.

Despite these obstacles I came into the RDAP unit feeling strong, focused and positive. The unit is a more restrictive setting, where prisoners are held to a much higher standard, actually expected to obey the rules. DTS staff constantly remind us that, "Little things are big things," and to "Consider your earliest projected release date with every decision you make and how it might be affected." I figured that since I've done such a long time in prison, my unusually long spell in this unit would be easier for me—but I’ve since come to believe that it’s what I need. I have persevered, avoiding peer pressure in the MTC and sticking to myself. 

But even though I quit using 10 years ago, the time I have spent here so far has convinced me that I am not “recovered.” My treatment is just beginning. I have come to realize that recovery has to be evaluated every day. It is something that I will struggle with for the rest of my life. What they said in NA now makes sense: "One day at a time." I always have to be on guard for triggers.

Any time I wanted to get high, I could go holler at my homeboy on the yard, who smokes weed and K-2 every day. Out of respect he doesn't ask me to join him. But it's right there—that close.

I asked the others if they feel the same. "I haven't really faced anything that would cause me to relapse in prison—but then again I haven’t seen a crack rock either," says Ronald, the crack addict. "The problem with me is a relapse in attitude. I haven't had the desire to use since I got locked up, but I slip back into my criminal thinking easily, and I know that will eventually lead to relapse."

Michael, the alcoholic, worries about a different issue: "Listening to my family tell me how my alcoholism affected them, that's been the hardest part,” he says. “My younger brother followed in my footsteps and got messed up real bad—fortunately it didn't land him in jail. I feel responsible for that. When I first got here, I was so mad that I would take allergy tablets every day to try and get a buzz off that."

We all face our own demons. Any time I wanted to get high, I could go holler at my homeboy on the yard, who smokes weed and K-2 every day. Out of respect he doesn't ask me to join him. But it's right there—that close. I choose not to partake. For me, recovery is the continuing ability to make a decision not to use.

"Drugs are here; these guys can get high and still make it through the program,” says the DTS. “But it’s not about getting through the program—it’s about staying out of prison drug-free. You need to do what you have to do now to ensure that you will stay free.” He adds, “I always tell the guys: You hit the lottery! You got the 12 months coming, so use your time wisely; don't get out 12 months early to come back 12 months sooner."

A lot of prisoners do. Recidivism rates are lower for those who successfully complete RDAP, but one in three still returns to prison.

I have no intention of committing more crimes. I’m also 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. But I need to continue to recognize my criminal thinking errors and identify the irrational beliefs that I have developed during my incarceration. For me, this is about quality of life, finding a balance and losing the prison mentality that has become like my second skin. I have become conditioned here; maybe RDAP can recondition me.

This is the next struggle of my recovery: my transition into the world. To make it in society, I must conquer this program and myself. I had the opportunity before, through the 12 Steps, and never did it, so I had to learn the hard way. RDAP can help me examine my motives from every angle. Then my future can be far away from a prison cell. I will be in this unit longer than most, but much as I hate to say it, I need it. I have made a positive commitment to change; now it’s time to put in the work. I start for real next month and am ready to do what it takes to stay out of prison, drug-free.

Seth Ferranti is serving 25 years for drug trafficking. He's a columnist for The Fix, where he recently told the story of a fatal gambling addiction. To learn more about prisoners, check out gorillaconvict.com. Gorilla Convict, a compilation of his writing about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling, is now available. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Disqus comments
seth-ferranti.jpg

After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

Disqus comments