Straight Time 

The Battle for Drug Treatment in California Prisons

Wednesday, May 26 1999
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
KERRY WOODS COMMITTED HIS LAST STICKUP ON A Saturday morning in 1994, after a long night snorting crystal meth and guzzling three pints of peppermint schnapps. Sitting in his pickup, not far from his home on the Mexican border, the apple-cheeked, wholesome-looking, 38-year-old Woods had watched the sun set, alternately blissed out and brooding about a recent layoff and his desperate need for money. It was that combination of high and low which always sent him back to his old ways. By morning, as the sun rose into the California sky, Woods had made a decision.

What then transpired turned out to be his singular version of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Grasping a sawed-off .22-caliber bolt-action rifle, he strode into a doughnut shop, pointed at the cash register and demanded its contents. The clerk appeared to cooperate, but dropped the money as he handed it over. When Woods stooped to pick it up, the counterman pepper-sprayed him dead in the eyes. His take, had the robbery succeeded, would have been $50. Instead, Woods got an eight-year sentence in a state penitentiary.

Even though that meant eight years away from his wife and stepdaughter, Woods never felt he'd gotten a bullshit rap. He'd caught the fear in the eyes of the people in the shop. And he knew that he hadn't really been after the money. The thing he'd coveted was the sweet euphoria that surged through him when he got high, and that rose to an exquisite intensity when mixed with the adrenaline rush of putting himself at risk. The search for that moment had resulted in at least five felony convictions, but in that he wasn't alone.

In a state with an astounding prisoner-recidivism rate of over 65 percent, repeat offenses are often linked to drugs. In 1997 -- when more than 17 percent of the state's former inmates were sent back to prison for committing new crimes, and a staggering 51 percent for violating parole -- most of those returnees tested dirty for drugs. Several recent national studies, in fact, have pegged the percentage of prison inmates with a serious alcohol or substance-abuse problem at somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent.

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At R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility just outside of San Diego, Kerry Woods is trying to break out of that cycle of euphoria, crime and incarceration. Daily, he visits two drab wooden trailers separated by concertina wire from the rest of the prison's vast gray gravel exercise field, and from most of Donovan's 4,400 inmates. The trailers hold the counseling center and classrooms for the Amity Foundation of California, a little-known outside treatment agency working with an experimental therapeutic community of 200 volunteer inmates. Until very recently, Amity's tiny program and several others -- accounting for a population of fewer than 500 prisoners -- were the only places in California's vast behemoth of 33 state prisons and 38 camps where an inmate could receive intensive drug counseling, focus on changing his or her behavior, and prepare to live in the outside world. The program represents the first steps by the California Department of Corrections to confront the link between drugs and violent crime and to deal in a nonpunitive way with a tiny fraction of its 35,000 drug offenders. There are now, however, causes for optimism. Over the past two years, treatment programs have been established for some 5,000 prisoners, as the California Department of Corrections and the state Legislature attempt to deal with prisoners' problems in other than a primitive way.

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, DRUG ARRESTS AND A $100 billion war on drugs have replaced America's War on Poverty, and California has helped lead the way. In 1980, about 7.5 percent of California's 23,000 inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses. Today, of California's 158,000 inmates, over 25 percent of the men and almost 35 percent of the women are imprisoned solely for drug offenses. And almost 60 percent of the prison population has been sentenced for nonviolent crimes frequently related to drugs. To put it another way, the number of California inmates imprisoned for assault with a deadly weapon or for other assaults and batteries at the start of 1996 was approximately 11,500. More than three times that many were incarcerated for drug offenses.

Despite that, for more than a decade the voices of hard-line prison professionals were allied against drug treatment for prisoners. Local law-enforcement officials, such as former Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner and ex­LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, to name just two of many during the 1980s, began talking about the hopelessness of adult rehabilitation and the need to write off the current generation and concentrate on the young kids. Others, such as conservative UCLA professor James Q. Wilson, questioned the very notion of rehabilitation: "Empty a prison in California," he says, "and ask yourself: What are these people going to do? They are not going to give up crime." In short, once an addict and a criminal, always an addict and a criminal.

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