Prisons are big business in California-the state leads the nation in construction and expansion of correctional facilities. The new prisons were filled with an increasing number of people behind bars for crimes directly or indirectly related to drugs. Those inmates did their time, got back out on the street and, for the most part, fell back into the same cycle.
In 1997, a report by the state Legislative Analyst's Office noted the obvious: 10,000 beds worth of state-contracted drug treatment programs could equate to a savings of $80 million a year and-voila!-decreased recidivism rates.
On July 4, in a crowded part of south Mission Bay, the Amity Foundation, one of the state's seven nonprofit in-prison drug treatment providers, staged its fourth annual party for graduates and their families, a celebration doubling as a promotional gathering to tout the program, in place at 19 facilities throughout the state. The Amity Foundation also runs the Vista Ranch residential treatment program, a post-prison stop for about half of the individuals released from in-prison programs.
Amity's Mark Faucett carried a binder full of statistics and photocopied newspaper clippings that vouched for the program's success. According to Amity's figures, 43 percent of prison inmates in California return within a year of being released. Of the inmates who undergo in-prison substance-abuse treatment, only 23 percent return; of those who transition into community-based treatment programs, only 20 percent return.
David, a 36-year-old Hispanic ex-con with tattoos running up his muscular arms, said that it's only through Amity's in-prison and out-of-prison treatment program that he's been able to break a 20-year cycle of crime and addiction.
A gang member since childhood, David says he committed assault with a deadly weapon, assault on a police officer, carjacking, battery and armed robbery. He was addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol, but today he's a sober and free man-his parole ends in October and he will be employed as a drug counselor at Vista Ranch, where he was once a resident.
To get sober, he said, he had to change his way of thinking-essentially be brainwashed out of his bad attitude, no easy task for someone incarcerated. “All I have ever been is a follower,” he said. As a treatment counselor, he tells his those he counsels that they need to think themselves off drugs-in doing so, he says, he also feels as if he were counseling himself
Roger, also 36, is a step behind David. Recently released from prison, he's optimistic that after 18 years of addiction, he will finally shake a methamphetamine habit and crime for good. He has done two terms in prison, both for drug-related charges; the second term he spent at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County where there's an Amity program in place.
Roger is tall and thin with dark hair, tanned skin and a mustache that rolls over his lip. He is sincere and hopeful. His words are carefully chosen as if he, like David, must constantly will himself sober. “I was destroying lives,” he says, in language that seems a bit foreign for an ex-con, but seemed nevertheless sincere. “I had no conscience and I had to learn how to feel.”