Atheist Inmate Receives $2 Million Settlement Over Forced 12-Step Drug Rehab

By McCarton Ackerman 10/16/14

Barry Hazle called submitting to a higher power 'a fiction' and wanted to make sure other non-believers didn't have to suffer his fate.

barry hazle.jpg
Barry Hazle. Photo via

An atheist and former inmate has received a nearly $2 million settlement after being sent back to jail for refusing to participate in a 12-step treatment program.

Barry Hazle, 46, was sentenced to probation for drug possession in 2004 and then ordered to prison in 2006 after violating his probation by using methamphetamine. He was released on parole a year later and then ordered to complete a 90-day inpatient treatment program.

Despite requesting a secular treatment program, he was sent to a 12-step program modeled after AA. After objecting to the religiously based 12-step regimen, he was deemed in violation of his probation and sent back to prison for 100 days.

But after two federal court rulings, Hazle has officially settled with the state of California and its contractor, WestCare California, for $1.95 million over wrongful incarceration in violation of his religious liberty. Money was not Hazle's main objective in bringing the suit. "I just want to make sure that somebody else doesn’t have to go through this kind of thing," he explained.

“[The treatment program] told me, 'Anything can be your higher power. Fake it till you make it,’” said Hazle. “I have to become powerful to overcome problems in my life...A higher power, to me, is a fiction."

The state’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation has attempted to respect religious views by ordering agents to refer paroled drug and alcohol offenders to nonreligious treatment programs if they objected to the higher power elements of a 12-step program. However, an August 2013 ruling in this case showed that WestCare never received the order and didn’t understand what made an “alternative non-religious program."

A federal judge had ruled in 2010 that Hazle’s rights were violated, but declined to offer financial compensation. It was only last year that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a retrial after ruling that he in fact was entitled to compensation for loss of liberty.

Hazle admitted to relapses in his struggles to stay clean over the years, but said he is “no longer a user” and is “committed to [my] recovery.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.