Posts Tagged ‘Prisons’

Zoraya’s Story: Drug court offers treatment & hope

 A row of plastic coins in silver, red, orange and green are affixed along the side of a mirror in Zoraya Arias’ bathroom at the Center for Hope treatment center in Mesa. There are nine of them – one for every month she has stayed clean.

 “I keep things to remind myself: I have a life worth living,” she tells me.

Zoraya, 25, is a former meth addict with the kind of life story that makes you think that maybe if it were you, you might have turned to meth to numb your frontal lobe, too. When Zoraya was six years old she saw her mother gunned down in a drive-by shooting during a family picnic in their front yard in Central Phoenix. A few years later, her dad went to prison. She has a middle school education. She started using alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs in her teens. She had her first child at 19. She stuck around for a few months, then she took off, leaving her son with his father’s family. She started using meth.

In the beginning “a twenty” of meth ($20 worth) would last her for a week. By the end, she and her friends would put away an “eight ball” that costs $200 in a few hours. To make money for meth, Zoraya became a “party girl.” When men asked if she was a prostitute she would say “no, but I’m not free.” At first, she lived in denial. Then she started walking the streets in stilettos and turning tricks at the La Quinta where she lived for a while. The drugs and prostitution came together in a vicious cycle: she had to get high to do what she was doing; she had to do what she was doing to get high. “I did things I never thought I would do,” she says. She got pregnant again and lost the baby.

Eventually the cops showed up at the La Quinta. She was arrested and put on probation. She didn’t get any treatment. She kept using meth. She was arrested again and went to jail. This time, she was placed in Maricopa County Drug Court.

I met Zoraya last month while researching drug court for a feature article that will appear in the April medical issue of Phoenix Magazine. Drug court is an alternative to incarceration, a program that combines drug treatment and probation to help addicts get clean and stay out of crime. In Arizona, the program is post-conviction: Participants are assigned to drug court as part of probation, with the threat of a prison term hanging over their head if they mess up. It is the only place in the criminal justice system here where an addict is guaranteed to get intensive drug treatment regardless of ability to pay. Research shows that treatment is much more effective than incarceration in helping to break the cycle of addiction and crime, and yet even though most Arizona prisoners have underlying substance abuse issues few get treatment. (And the treatment that is available is often not sufficient to meet their needs.)

Drug courts have been touted as one of the most successful criminal justice innovations of the last two decades. Research commissioned for the federal government’s National Institute of Justice found they save money, reduce crime and fight addiction. (Read more from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals here.)

For Zoraya, drug court combined with residential treatment has helped her get on the path to turn her life around. “I gained so much because I wanted to change my life,” she says. “Drug court gave me so many chances and opportunities.”

At first, she continued using even while participating in drug court. She was ordered into residential treatment. When she tried to slit her wrist, they kicked her out. She draws her finger up the inside of her left forearm along a ridge of scars. She’s been “a cutter” since age 10 – it is a coping mechanism, she tells me. The facility was not equipped to deal with her mental health issues, too. She went to another facility and got kicked out again. She was thrown in jail for 45 days last year. It was there that her attitude turned around. In May, she was admitted to the Center for Hope, a long-term residential facility specifically designed for women with children and mental health challenges.

The Center for Hope is a non-descript commercial building, set back from a residential street. While most residential facilities keep patients 30-90 days, the Center for Hope is a yearlong program that also helps with transitional housing afterward.  Children under four years old can stay there with their mothers.

Zoraya says the program has taught her how to cope with her past and prepare for the future. “I learned to understand and forgive my past. I have made a lot of mistakes and I am willing to make amends with everyone and myself,” she says. She is working on her GED and looking for a job in retail. She wants to be a peer counselor to help others get off drugs. One day, she would like to open a restaurant with her party girl name, “Ra Ra’s Bar & Grill.” She specializes in cooking soul food. “I learned I am a strong woman. I am determined to do more in life,” she says. “Although, there are a lot of things that happened, I don’t let it get to me. I don’t want to sound conceited…” She throws her dark hair back and laughs: “I love the way I am now!”

In her room at the treatment facility, she points to a picture of a too-thin woman with poorly bleached hair and hollow eyes. It is hard to recognize the curvy, happy, bubbly woman she is now in that image. She pulls out an old ID card to prove it.

Her room is a shrine for the son she left behind and for her own budding hope. She shows a visitor a picture of the boy, C.J., in a frame that says “My Angel.” She says she is getting better for him. More pictures of him are all around the room, along with photos of friends and family members. Inspirational messages are everywhere: on picture frames, clipped and pasted to the walls, on a poster behind the door: “Seize the moment.” “Be yourself.” “It’s time to feel good again.” “Survivor.”

In a criminal justice system far better at punishing drug addicts than rehabilitating them, Zoraya’s turnaround through drug court is a an example of one of the things we may be doing right.


Read Amanda J. Crawford’s feature on Maricopa County Drug Court, “All Rise, Some Fall” in Phoenix Magazine’s April medical issue.

  • Share/Bookmark

Profit vs. justice: Private prisons, SB1070 & the hijacking of criminal justice

NPR today reported a disturbing tale about how private prison lobbyists helped to craft and push for Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB1070, to help pad their bottom lines. If you haven’t heard/read the story by my old friend Laura Sullivan about how capitalism – not justice or public safety – may have motivated the law, check it out here.

The beginning is haunting:

Last year, two men showed up in Benson, Ariz., a small desert town 60 miles from the Mexico border, offering a deal.

Glenn Nichols, the Benson city manager, remembers the pitch.

“The gentleman that’s the main thrust of this thing has a huge turquoise ring on his finger,” Nichols said. “He’s a great big huge guy and I equated him to a car salesman.”

What he was selling was a prison for women and children who were illegal immigrants.

“They talk [about] how positive this was going to be for the community,” Nichols said, “the amount of money that we would realize from each prisoner on a daily rate.”

But Nichols wasn’t buying. He asked them how would they possibly keep a prison full for years — decades even — with illegal immigrants?

“They talked like they didn’t have any doubt they could fill it,” Nichols said.

That’s because prison companies like this one had a plan — a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona’s immigration law.

The story reveals campaign contributions from private prison corporations to SB1070 sponsors and says prison lobbyists helped craft the measure during meetings with the special-interest-driven American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Though threads of this story, including ties between Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s staffers and private prison firms, had already been out there, Sullivan connects the dots more clearly than before.

Arizona Republic reporter Casey Newton has been poking holes in the story all day via Twitter, noting, among other things, that SB1070 had been several years in the making. And legislators like House Speaker Kirk Adams have blasted it. Adams, also via Twitter, called the story “pathetic” and a “gross distortion.” (Newton, by the way, has my old job covering the state legislature and prison system at the paper. While there I wrote about legislators’ private prison connections and the corporate influence of ALEC.)

But I think, no matter how much of a role private prison lobbyists played in drafting and pushing SB1070 specifically (I definitely believe there was a lot of fear and hate motivating the law, too!), the NPR story today provides disturbing insight into how laws are made and how the administration of justice in our country has become a profit-generating industry.

Over the last few decades, our system of justice has been radically transformed. The number of people in prison has skyrocketed, primarily due drug war laws and mandatory minimum prison sentences passed by politicians. Decisions about who goes to prison and for how long are now made, for the most part, by politicians who set the rules and prosecutors who decide the charges. Judges, who once were charged with making sure punishment fit the crime, have had their hands tied by legislative restrictions.

People who support that shift in control over the justice system point out that politicians are accountable to the people in a way that judges are not. And, indeed, efforts by politicians to win over the electorate with “tough on crime” campaigns are just about the only sure-fire tactic in politics. Political careers have ended because the person couldn’t shake the allegation that they were “soft on crime” (Michael Dukakis is a famous example) and been made by pledges to impose extreme punishment on the criminal pariah of the day (SB1070 = illegal immigrants). That pressure alone has created a system of justice that doesn’t always make a lot of sense: drug users sometimes serve longer prison sentences than rapists. Perverts in Arizona who look at kiddie porn often serve longer than the creeps who actually molest children.

But politicians are also far more susceptible to the influences of corporations and special interest. The multi-billion dollar private prison industry in our country realizes profits for each additional person locked up and for every additional day they are behind bars. It doesn’t strain credulity to believe that they push for things like SB1070 and drug laws that help their business model.

The reality is that our criminal code and criminal justice system has been skewed in the service of political points and corporate profit — and that is impacting the fabric of our society and many individual lives. That reality should be horrifying in itself: it goes far beyond just SB1070 and the NPR story and speaks volumes about the institutional challenges facing meaningful criminal justice and drug policy reform.


  • Share/Bookmark

Marijuana use is up. So are arrests. What now?

Drug warriors: start your tsk-tsking.

A federal government report out today shows that illicit drug use, especially of marijuana, went up in 2009.  And who’s to blame? The media, cancer patients and any parent who won’t exaggerate the dangers of marijuana.

Fueled by discussions of legalization, so-called “medical” marijuana, and a proliferation of pro-drug messages in the media and popular culture, young people are misinformed about a drug whose potency has tripled in the past 20 years and sends more youth to treatment than any other drug.*

The report found that 16.7 million Americans had smoked pot in the last month, up 8 percent from 2008. The average age of first use was 17 years old (down slightly from 17.8 years old in 2008, but fairly unchanged for the last several years). The National Office of Drug Control Policy blamed a change in public sentiment toward marijuana, with the survey finding that fewer young people agreed with the statement that smoking marijuana regularly presents a “great risk.”

The “great risk” they should be afraid of turns out to be arrest. Another federal government report out this week, from the FBI, showed that more than 858,000 people were arrested in connection with marijuana in 2009 – mostly (88 percent) for possession. The pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project notes that this is up significantly from recent years and amounted to a marijuana arrest every 37 seconds. The two reports taken together should signal a need for change in marijuana laws, the MPP says:

“It’s now more obvious than ever that decades of law enforcement efforts have absolutely failed to reduce marijuana’s use or availability, and that it’s simply an exercise in futility to continue arresting hundreds of thousands of Americans for using something that’s safer than alcohol,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “Rather than criminalize millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens and waste billions of dollars that could be better spent combating violent crime and other real threats to public safety, it’s time we embrace sensible marijuana policies that would regulate marijuana the same way we do alcohol or tobacco.”

Some other things worth noting:

-The age group that saw the largest increase in drug use wasn’t tweens; it was their grandparents. The percent of adults age 50-54 reporting recent drug use went up a whopping 60 percent! That increase was followed by an increase in drug use among 21-25 year olds and 26-29 year olds, which went up 11.4 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively. The increase in drug use among 16 and 17 year olds was nearly 10 percent, but the increase in drug use by all younger age brackets was nominal.

-Marijuana use by youth age 12-17 was up slightly to 7.3 percent from 6.7 percent in 2008. But it was still lower than in 2002-2004.

-*The NODCP’s contention that more youth are in treatment for marijuana than for any other drug can be misleading. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily there because they are “addicted” to pot and need help. There has been a significant increase in diversion programs nationwide through which someone arrested for possession of drugs can avoid jail time by going into treatment. More people use marijuana. More people are arrested for marijuana. So more people are in treatment for it.

-The FBI found that violent crime was down five percent nationwide in 2009. So more people are using drugs but that has not led to more serious crime.

-In Phoenix, The Arizona Republic reports that crime is down across the board except in one category: home invasions. Home invasions went up 48 percent in 2009 over the last four years. These usually involve human smuggling and drug smuggling operations. So more crime from drug users? No. But from prohibition and a broken immigration system that empowers smugglers? Yes.

Read more:

-The AP story on the NODCP’s report.

-The Huffington Post on the Drug Czar’s confrontation with a representative of Students for Sensible Drug Policy over whether legalizing marijuana would help defeat Mexican drug cartels.


  • Share/Bookmark

The Drug War & Civil Rights: ‘The New Jim Crow’

Has the War on Drugs replaced Jim Crow laws as the way to control blacks and other minorities in America?

Civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, argues this point The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In the book, she shows how the War on Drugs has replaced blatantly racist policies of the past but had a similar effect in keeping large portions of the black community as second-class citizens.

I had the opportunity to hear Alexander discuss her insightful new book at an Open Society Institute criminal justice conference in Austin this week.* Alexander’s critique of the history of the drug war should concern any equality-loving American.

In the 1980s, images of the crack epidemic in black communities flooded TV — a propaganda tactic, Alexander argues, designed by the Reagan administration to bolster support for the newly-escalated War on Drugs. Those images “forever changed who drug dealers and users are and what should be done with them,” she said. “And a tidal wave of punitiveness washed over America,” forever transforming law enforcement in our country.

While the American public was sold on the drug war as a way to fight violent crime, Alexander noted that the vast majority of anti-drug funding and law enforcement effort has instead gone toward busting non-violent drug users.

Today, the majority of young urban black men are either behind bars or have a felony record, according to her book. And the prison population in the United States has skyrocketed. Hispanics have also disproportionately been impacted by the drug war: “Although this drug war was born with black folks in mind, it is a hungry beast that has begun to demand all people of color,” Alexander said. (See Alexander discussing her book on “Democracy Now.” Read a recent article here.)

Civil rights organizations have been reluctant to take on the drug war and incarceration policies as primary issues. As one OSI staffer noted at the conference, drug users and felons aren’t quite the wholesome image that Rosa Parks was to build a movement around.

The California State Conference of the NAACP bucked this trend earlier this month by passing a resolution in support of Proposition 19, which would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in the state of California. California NAACP President Alice Huffman writes:

“As leaders of the California NAACP, it is our mission to eradicate injustice and continue the fight for civil rights and social justice wherever and whenever we can. We are therefore compelled to speak out against another war, the so called ‘war on drugs.’ To be clear, this is not a war on the drug lords and violent cartels, this is a war that disproportionately affects young men and women and the latest tool for imposing Jim Crow justice on poor African-Americans.”

The NAACP’s resolution coincided with the release of a report by the Drug Policy Alliance which documented major disparities in marijuana arrests between African Americans and Caucasians in California. In the 25 counties examined, blacks were arrested at double, triple or quadruple the rate of whites — a rate inconsistent with their percent of the population. This also occurs despite the fact that government studies show that young whites actually consume marijuana at rates higher than young blacks.

“The findings in this report are a chilling reminder of the day-to-day realities of marijuana prohibition and the large-scale racist enforcement at its core,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Racial justice demands ending this policy disaster and replacing it with a sensible regulatory system that redirects law enforcement to matters of genuine public safety. Proposition 19 is California’s exit strategy from its failed war on marijuana.”

The African-American community is certainly not in lockstep with the NAACP on this issue. In fact, some black pastors came out loudly against the California NAACP. According to the AP, Ron Allen, president of International Faith-Based Coalition, which represents 3,600 congregations, said he opposed the resolution because of the negative impact “illicit drugs” have had on the black community.

There is no doubt that what Pastor Allen says is true. But do we really think pot is what we’re talking about here? Lumping marijuana in with lethal drugs like heroine and crack is like punishing graffiti taggers the same as armed robbers.

Is it time to examine drug policy, mass incarceration and police practices that have put a disproportionate number of minorities behind bars?

*Note: Alexander was a 2005 Soros Justice Fellow with OSI. I am a 2010 Soros Media Fellow with OSI, which helps to support

  • Share/Bookmark

What do you do with addicts who commit crimes? What about drug treatment?

What to do about drug addicts? Lock them up, let them out and watch them commit more crimes?

Newsweek has a great article this week arguing that the costs of treating drug addiction in prison saves money and cuts crime in the long-run. The article notes that nationally only one-fifth of inmates get drug treatment, even though nearly half of the 2.3 million people in prison nationwide have a history of drug addiction. While not all of those people are incarcerated for drug offenses, many crimes — like burglary — are fueled by addiction.

Drug treatment programs — just like other safety net programs – help prevent crime and continued drug abuse. But these programs are often the first things on the chopping block as state legislators struggle with budget deficits:

The irony here is that by lowering recidivism, the programs themselves save money in the long run. The NIDA report released last year cited a remarkable statistic: heroin addicts who received no treatment in jail were seven times as likely as treated inmates to become re-addicted, and three times as likely to end up in prison again. For every dollar spent, the programs save $2 to $6 by reducing the costs of re-incarceration, according to Human Rights Watch. Looked at another way, the programs can save the justice system about $47,000 per inmate.

Here’s the problem: Politicians can’t run for office and win on a “Treat them all” mantra. But “lock ‘em up” pays dividends. The best example I can think of is my own hometown sheriff, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio has cost the county millions of dollars, has failed to investigate rapes and other serious crimes and abused the power of his office time and time again. But since he puts his low-level jail inmates in pink underwear and feeds them spoiled meat and pledges to round-up illegal landscapers, he gets elected again and again.

We have more people in prison per capita in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.  We must demand that our politicians get smart — rather than continue to be tough and stupid — on crime. Maybe instead of a War on Drugs — which is, really, a War on Drug Users — we should try to truly battle drug addiction.

  • Share/Bookmark