The other day, a woman wrote to me from prison, where she's been doing time for her role in a gang murder committed when she was barely 20 years old. She was high when the crime happened. For her, not much has changed since then.
Dear Mr. Moyers: I'm getting desperate in here. Not because I'm here; after almost 14 years, it's "home." No, it's the drugs. I'm clean 47 days again — 47 days after 14 years! What does that say about life behind bars? There are no services for us women who got here because of drugs, who have to take a clean urine test before we get out, who will end up right back here if we can't do life on the outside clean. My release date is 2017. Between now and then, I've got to get help. Or else.
Crimes and punishment are direct consequences for people under the influence of an all-consuming illness. Yes, addicts and alcoholics are sick, too. But unlike other chronic illnesses, addiction has a propensity to cause people to do what they know they shouldn't, and that includes breaking the law. That's why of the 2 million-plus people incarcerated in county jails, state prisons and federal penitentiaries, at least three-quarters got there as a direct result of substances, legal or illegal.
"Nothing changes if nothing changes," and that's as true for people who need to stop getting high as it is for a society that pays for a war on drugs that's failed to do anything except lock them up, at taxpayers' expense. What does it say about their prospects or ours if demand is met by supply in the confines of a jail cell just as it is in a crack house or a corner bar or a home medicine cabinet? Justice isn't blind. Justice is in denial. It'll stay that way, too, as long as inmates can't receive appropriate treatment. It doesn't matter if they're locked up or on the street; addicts who can't stop or won't before, during or after they are punished usually end up right back in the system. It's called recidivism. Without it, the prison industry would die.
Recently, a United States senator held a roundtable conversation about the conflagration of overdose deaths related to heroin and opiate pain medications. Experts were at the table, including a county sheriff and a small-town police chief. But no doctor or clinical leader from a treatment center was there, even though the gathering was at a facility with a long history of treating young people, including opium addicts. Why, I asked, given that addiction is a treatable illness and a public health problem?
"Our office in Washington is afraid that if we don't emphasize law enforcement, the senator will come off as being too soft on crime," answered the senator's staff member. A baseless fear, I argued, given the senator's well-respected career as a tough criminal prosecutor, as well as a vocal advocate for effective addiction treatment.
Fortunately, my protestations of the moment won out over the politics of the season. The staff relented. The facility's medical director was given a seat at the table. He carried the day, along with the sheriff, the police chief, the mothers of two children who overdosed and died, a drug trend researcher, and the U.S. senator, proof that a community of experts knows best how to confront addiction. As long as everyone sees that denial is more than just the addict's problem alone.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His book "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery" was published last year. Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.