The Truth About Drug Treatment in Prison

By Daniel Genis 08/18/14

Eleven years ago "the apologetic bandit" was sentenced to prison. Now free, Daniel Genis details what happens in a system where virtually every prisoner is mandated to drug treatment.

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Every regular prison in New York state boasts an ASAT program—Adult Substance Abuse Treatment—where prisoners live in a ‘therapeutic’ setting and attend groups rather than jobs. There are 54 prisons left in this state, after several closings in the last decade, of which 51 have ASAT facilities. The prisons that don’t have ASAT units are either reception facilities or solitary confinement installations. Almost every prisoner has the completion of six months of this treatment as one of his ‘required programs,’ just like sex offenders get specialized counseling and those convicted of a violent crime take ART—Aggression Replacement Training. It would seem that the letters ‘CF’ which follow after every prison’s name (e.g. Clinton CF) are taken seriously, as they stand for Correctional Facility. And yet the prison yards are awash with drugs, the boxes (solitary units) filled with men caught with dirty urines, and the recidivism rate has not been shown to have any correlation with jailhouse drug treatment. Despite the (federal) money and effort spent on the ASAT program, it just doesn’t seem to work.

I should know; I’ve taken it twice.

It took heroin a year and nine months to take me from my desk at a literary agency to sticking up strangers. I was only 23 when introduced to the drug and still young and dumb enough to think I could handle it, the way I had a drink now and then, and a line of coke at parties, and a puff on a joint at concerts. But the same William Burroughs whom I loved to read so much at the time had warned me that dope is not a kick. It is a lifestyle that shrinks your existence down to the point of a needle and causes you to live from fix to fix.

They gave me three months in the box just for not being able to urinate. That was my first strike.

I caught a habit immediately and was a functioning addict, spending a hundred dollars a day, until I wasn’t; the financial demands and time and blood on my suit removing me from regular society quite neatly. I acquired a debt to a scary dealer and desperately and foolishly committed five robberies with a pocketknife to pay it off and keep my habit going. This was in August of 2003. The newspapers called me the ‘apologetic bandit’ because I included a "sorry" with my request for money, and never hurt anyone. The judge gave me twelve flat, which meant ten years and three months. I was released in February this year after doing my minimum.

My first four years were spent in a prison called Greenhaven CF, a huge old dungeon holding 2,500 inmates, of which about 200 are in ASAT at any given time. I was given the chance to do the program immediately. Everyone warned me not to, but I didn’t listen. The conventional logic against taking the program at the beginning of a sentence is that if at any point later on you are found guilty of a drug or alcohol infraction, you have to take ASAT over. Even though I saw drugs everywhere and was offered free samples and could probably have gotten away with it, I could never imagine taking drugs again after what they had already done to my life. I just didn’t see any drug infractions in my future, so I took the program in 2005 and completed it, only to have to do another six months worth in 2013.

It turned out that I simply could not urinate on command, a condition called paruresis. The urinalysis procedure in prison allows a convict three hours to produce a sample; about five years into my sentence I was standing in a toilet with an angry cop yelling at me and could only squeeze out one drop. Not only was I sent to solitary for three months for ‘not complying with urinalysis procedures,' I had to take ASAT once more. My family and I took the case to court where we imagined a judge would see the injustice of this, especially since my family had an expensive hair sample done to demonstrate my innocence. We lost. So out of ten years in prison, I spent one of them in treatment. Sort of.

Imposing recovery rarely works. Professionals in the field, upon meeting a client, immediately ask whether they are mandated or voluntary, understanding the difference. Those addicts who chose to come into whatever treatment suits them best, be it inpatient, outpatient, AA or other forms of therapy including methadone and Suboxone programs, are the ones with the likeliest chances of success. Simply put, if it is the addict who wants to get clean and not a judge who desires this on his behalf, then he has a shot. All of the early therapeutic communities were composed of men and women who got together to get sober, just as AA was created by a fellowship of sufferers who wished to help one another stop hurting. Wanting to quit is no guarantee of success, but it definitely improves one’s chances.

However, since the early 90’s, special drug courts and parole and judges in DUI cases have added a step to the vicious cycle of conviction, release, parole, violation, repeat. What often results in a lifetime of institutions now begins with a mandate to a program of some sort instead of prison. Theoretically, first-time offenders are given a chance to conquer their addiction instead of simply being punished for its consequences. But as a result of this trend, counselors have grown accustomed to rehabs full of reluctant, unhappy clients who are just waiting out their time at whichever facility they have been sent to. Sometimes they are not actual addicts but dealers, satisfying a conviction by doing a program instead of a bid. Years ago, those who were given the opportunity of taking a drug program rather than doing time were the lucky ones, and real addicts for the most part. But defense attorneys soon learned to present their dealer clients as addicts, and the business of rehabilitation grew to take advantage of a need for treatment centers that run on Medicaid. The mandated and unwilling now comprise the vast majority of the populations of TC’s, or Therapeutic Communities, like Daytop and Phoenix House. The mandated clients are often disruptive and hard on the couple of volunteers who really want to be there. A decade ago Daytop dealt with this problem by segregating out the ‘self-pay’ and ‘self-referred’ population to a facility of their own. As part of a theater program, I visited it as well as the warehouse where the mandated were kept. The volunteers only numbered 20, while the mandated were several hundred spread over various Catskill locations. The food was a lot better at the volunteer house and nobody cursed at you. At the locations for the mandated people, the atmosphere was ugly, because even though the residents would rather be there than in jail, they really didn’t want to be there either.

No one at all wants to be in prison. Things are tense to begin with, but worse in the ASAT dormitories and blocks. Just about every convict eventually goes through them. Sounds like a good first step towards the rehabilitation of a criminal, addressing the addiction which likely motivated his crime, but since the implementation of such programs inside penal institutions, their missions have gone awry. And yet it was the prisoners who initially asked for them!

In New York State, jailhouse drug treatment only came into existence after the Attica Riots of 1971. The first recovery programs were voluntary institutions that prisoners would do either to actually stop being addicts or to look good for parole. The inclusion of rehabilitation programs was part of the vast prison reform that Governor Rockefeller put in after burying the bodies up in Attica. Along with opportunities for education and vocational training, prisoners had requested drug treatment. During the stand-off, their demands were answered with bullets, but afterwards the reforms passed closely matched what the prisoners had asked for.

Forty-three years have since passed. Nowadays, it is very rare for a prisoner to not have the requirement to complete ASAT. Refusing to complete a required program means doing the max of your time or never being paroled at all, if yours is a sentence that finishes with the word ‘life.’ Decades ago the state prisons realized that they can fund their programs with federal money by applying for grants and meeting certain standards. Since the ASAT program is basically run by the prisoners themselves, with a few counselors overseeing hundreds of clients at a time, it is actually cheap to keep going but easy to bill the Feds. In the last 20 years, basically every New York State prisoner transformed into an addict through guidelines very far removed from reality. Admitting to having had a beer at the age of 21 is enough for the ASAT requirement to be imposed. I have seen this perversion go as far as to classify a former Franciscan monk, who was in prison for molesting boys, to be sent to drug treatment because he drank communion wine at the masses he officiated. The blood of Christ himself made him an alcoholic.

As most people in America have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, they would all be going to ASAT if they had the misfortune to get sent to prison. The only people I met in prison who did not have to take ASAT were the experienced cons who had been in before and knew enough to say that they had never even tried alcohol or any other substance. Everyone else took the six month long program, and I had to take it twice.

The intersection of funding strategies and recovery is an unfortunate one for those who really need help. I certainly did. Drugs destroyed my life, and from what I could tell from the people around me, most of the other convicts’ lives too. But we were all held in prison against our will, which meant that the culture of rebellion and opposition to conventional morality and oppressive authority was fierce. Not only did I complete the program twice, I held leadership positions, meaning that while the counselor read his newspaper in an air-conditioned office in another building, I read lectures and held discussions and screened movies. Since every penny was pinched, the films were either from the 70’s, or donated by local AA groups. However, because of an atheist’s lawsuit from a few years back, the steps of AA are technically forbidden to be taught, so I was instructed to start the videos five minutes into them, past the credits.

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Daniel Genis is a Russian-American writer who, at one time, was made famous by a polite string of robberies (he would apologize, take people’s cash from them, then return their wallets) in New York City’s financial district. He was eventually caught and served his time. Daniel is the author of the novel Narcotica. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.