A Hard-Earned Recovery, Texas Prison Style

By Melissa Killeen 08/20/15

One journey from addiction, to prison, to recovery, to coaching others.

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External forces and pressures such as urine toxicology, judges and probation offices are frequently encountered in the early stages of a recovery journey. There can be many paths to stable recovery in addiction, but for many, it is the opportunity to help others and provide service to the community that functions as a critical impetus. Recovery coach Melissa Killeen describes one man’s journey of addiction, treatment, prison and early recovery. - Dr. Richard Juman

In and Out of Jail and Treatment

Kyle Gage lives in Longview, Texas, a little oil and manufacturing town a couple of hours east of of Dallas-Fort Worth and about an hour west of Shreveport, Louisiana. The small town has had some illustrious citizens: Forest Whitaker was born in Longview, and Matthew McConaughey went to Longview High School in the 80s.

Kyle had less of an illustrious impact on Longview. He entered his first rehab at 17. He enrolled in a boarding school for troubled teens. He had been in and out of rehab too many times, trying to do it his way. At age 20, he knew he had to change, so he attended some NA meetings, through which he stayed clean for about six months. Then he used. He tried to keep things under control and managed to avoid any serious consequences for about a year. But then one day, he was pulled over by the police, who found methamphetamine.

In lieu of jail time, he agreed to treatment. After his treatment episode, he remained clean on probation, in part because he was receiving regular tox screens. Staying clean was motivated by his desire to stay out of jail. For seven months he was sober, but then he started to drink. Eventually, drinking turned to using other drugs. Because of his fear of failing a tox screen, he stopped reporting to probation and went on the run. Kyle was picked up a few months later for the probation violation and was sent to the James Bradshaw State Jail in Henderson, Texas.

He got no help for his recovery in the state prison, drugs being as easily available there as they were on the streets. Upon his release, he began using again, and was eventually arrested for burglary. He went to treatment, but left against medical advice. He went to live at an Oxford House and remained clean for 2-3 months. The stinking thinking eventually returned, so he drank, and drinking led to using. In a very short time, he was arrested. At 26 years old, he was facing two consecutive ten-year convictions for burglary and grand theft auto. Kyle knew this was serious.

He asked the judge for help, and the judge gave Kyle ten years of deferred adjudication. Deferred adjudication is a form of a plea deal, where a defendant pleads "guilty" or "no contest" to criminal charges in exchange for meeting certain requirements laid out by the court. In Kyle’s case, these terms were that he go to an inmate drug treatment program, attend drug court upon his release, make a commitment to outpatient treatment, perform community service and complete probation within the allotted period of time ordered by the court.

Kyle was sentenced to six months at the Clyde M. Johnston Unit, the Texas Correctional Institution’s Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility in Winnsboro,Texas. This facility is Texas’ drug treatment program for offenders. He received a lot of treatment and therapy at the Johnston Unit, where he realized that he needed to embrace recovery. 

Embracing Recovery 

For Kyle, embracing recovery in prison began by helping others. Helping others gave him hope. He was the person that led the NA meetings in his dorm. The counselors at Johnston announced that a recovery coaching certification course for the inmates would start at Johnston. They said they only had room for ten men. Kyle applied. He was hoping they would pick him, but he was nervous. He knew it was very competitive and they were only picking one person per dorm. 

Kyle’s mother found the book Recovery Coaching: A Guide to Coaching People in Recovery from Addictions on Amazon.com and sent it to Kyle. Kyle read it before he even got accepted into the class, which he eventually did. He excelled in helping others in the Unit embrace recovery. He graduated the recovery coaching class and was even invited to talk to the Unit’s next class of recovery coaches. 

Coaching Other Offenders

The primary counselor notified Kyle that he wanted him to talk to an offender who was a disciplinary problem. “Jason” was 19 years old and faced 10-15 years for aggravated assault. Jason was a first phase client, which meant he had only been at the Johnston Unit for 30 days. He was a meth addict, and was having trouble adjusting to the Unit. He had issues with people in his dorm. He didn’t attend AA or NA meetings. He didn’t want to be in recovery. He wanted to give up, and fantasized about "rendering his sentence." The inmates call it “getting sent back to county." Rendering a sentence means going back to the original courthouse and telling the judge, “Thanks, but I would rather serve 10 years for aggravated assault than spend any more time in therapy and treatment for my drug addiction.” Sound crazy? According to Kyle, that is what goes through the heads of many offenders. The grip of the addiction is so strong that living life sober is frightening. Many choose to self-sabotage by creating problems, by assaulting or threatening another inmate and receiving an extension of their sentence.

Jason was referred to Kyle specifically because he reminded the counselors of Kyle—he had sleeves of tattoos just like Kyle did. Kyle met with him and talked to him about meth, as they shared the same drug of choice. Kyle asked about Jason’s story, and listened. It was different from Kyle’s story, but there were many similarities. Kyle shared many of Jason’s traits—being an outlaw, an outcast, and a gang member. Jason didn’t think the meetings would be beneficial to him. Kyle shared that it was in the 12-step rooms where he truly felt alive.

Kyle asked Jason about his plan when he gets out of Johnston, and allowed him to self-actualize as to where he wanted to be in five years. Jason broke down and cried during this meeting. He was frightened at what he was facing. He had a lot of anger issues and didn’t know what to do. So, Kyle told him what worked for him. 

During the six months that offenders were at the Johnston Unit, there was no chance of them using drugs. The coaches helped the offenders embrace recovery, work the 12 steps and learn to use the steps in their daily life in prison. Kyle coached men who were violent, who had assaulted other men, were disciplinary problems, and for whom coaching was the last step before they were “sent back to county." Kyle was there to stop them from rendering their sentence and losing everything. Sometimes, an inmate had a family member pass away and the inmate was not granted permission to attend the funeral. Although this coaching had nothing to do with recovery from drugs or alcohol, the recovery coaches are assigned to console these inmates through the grieving process. 

When inmates were close to being released—having no experience with 12-step meetings or recovery on the outside—and having no intentions of asking for help, Kyle gives them some “recovery capital.” He would give them lists of AA and NA meetings near the halfway house they were being released to. Kyle would give them information on Community Healthcore, which is a large social services agency in Texas with outpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs. He would tell them about drug court classes and behavioral health counseling. Kyle and a few of the other recovery coaches in the Johnston Unit were from the Dallas area. When a prisoner would be going to back to the Dallas area, the coaches would refer the offenders to people on the outside that could take them to a meeting.

Another prisoner, “Caleb,” was in the reentry process—in a few weeks, he was being released to a halfway house in Beaumont, Texas. Caleb had been in this position before. As he got closer to the “door,” he became scared. He was afraid of going back into the real world. He was so sure that he could do things his way, but in the back of his head, he knew that doing things his way was what had gotten him into prison before, several times. Kyle ran the 12-step meetings, and Caleb would attend as a “wood worker." ("Working wood" means doing the absolute minimum, not participating, not getting involved and not believing this program would work for them.) 

Kyle was assigned to speak to Caleb. Kyle asked him what happened after he drank a beer, and Caleb admitted that after he drank one beer, it would soon be a dozen and very shortly, he was thinking about using crack, his drug of choice. Kyle knew this story very well, because it was Kyle’s story. So he shared his story with Caleb. It didn’t seem to work. Caleb kept wood working and didn’t really engage in the program. Caleb was antagonistic. He would challenge the tenants of the program—asking questions about willpower, saying recovery was a choice and that he was “not an addict forever.” He didn’t think that any program would help him, but he knew that if he went out into the real world, he would use again. 

Many offenders self-sabotage their release process by getting into fights and end up staying in prison a few months longer. This happened to Caleb. He remained at the Johnston Unit a few months longer, which was just enough time to let Kyle’s work with him penetrate. Upon his release, Kyle gave Caleb the information on 12-step meetings in Beaumont, and he agreed to attend the meetings. Kyle continues to communicate with Caleb, who is sober and has not re-offended.

At this point, Kyle Gage has been out of the Johnston Unit for about a year. He is wrapping up his drug court commitment. He is enrolled in a community college to get his associate's degree. He works part time, but really wants to return to recovery coaching as a profession to help himself and others maintain the recovery that he loves. 

Melissa Killeen is the CEO of MK Recovery Coaching, the author of Recovery Coaching: A Guide to Coaching People in Recovery from Addictions and a former President of Recovery Coaches International.

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Melissa Killeen is a recovery coach from New Jersey, and the author of,Recovery Coaching- A Guide to Coaching People in Recovery from AddictionsYou can see her full bio here. You can also find her on Linkedin.

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