I attended the 38th Legislative Breakfast on Mental Health that Steve and Julie Bailey, from Josh’s Hope Foundation (and numerous others), put on each year at the Friday Center.  I must say I like the Friday Center.  This year’s event had a criminal justice reform focus, including a talk from the NC Division of Adult Corrections Commissioner W. David Guice. In the course of the morning I heard some great quotes and my favorite was from Rep. Graig Meyer. He is a Licensed Social Worker and has a daughter who has struggled with mental health diagnoses and he now represents NCGA House District 50 (Orange/Durham).  At one point, he said, as he walked us through an honest snapshot of what we are dealing with these days, “We need to understand the difference between those we are angry at and those we are afraid of.”

If you don’t quite understand what that means allow me to back up a bit.

Way back, my sponsor and grand-sponsor took meetings into Jackson Prison, to one of the felony pods, and for a while I went with them.  Do you know of Jackson Prison, about an hour outside of Detroit?  It’s the largest walled prison on Earth.
You’d think Russia or some other place would hold that record but no, it’s Michigan.  Angola prison in Louisiana is bigger, maybe, but they are not fully walled, Angola’s surrounded on some sides by swamps no one can escape.  If you run through those swamps the gators get ya. Getting back to Jackson, it was evident these were great meetings.  Honest authentic meetings from a group of prisoners who were telling it “raw”, as they say. But what really blew my mind; after a while I realized most of these guys were never getting out, they were here for life. Some were in for murder, plus, Michigan has three-strikes-you’re-out, what they call habitual offender laws. Three felonies and you’re in prison for life, no chance of parole. North Carolina has them also.  We’ll come back to that topic. The point is, these convicts had no reason to go to meetings except; they were in recovery.  There was no favor or early release or parole release they could work their way toward through good behavior. No reward except the purely spiritual.  Inner growth. That’s when it really sank in how good these meetings were, maybe the best meetings I have ever been to.

I like to say that recovery is a real thing, ’cause it is. People ask, “What does that mean?” and it is a bit of a problem to convey because it has an experiential transformative quality to it. What the early Christians we call Gnostics talked about. This example, this story, is an attempt to convey the reality of lived experience. To be authentic with no earthly reward, that is recovery.

I’m circling back to the Meyer quote but the real trigger for all this was; last week I heard a prisoner, in prison for life, give an open talk at a 12 Step meeting, OUT IN THE COMMUNITY. In the early 90’s, in a drunken black-out he had shot and killed a family member.  Native by birth, his childhood traumatic, he had seen much violence in his life. Introduced to recovery in prison, his recovery has progressed, he’s so rehabilitated, that he resides in minimum security and they allowed him to attend and speak at a meeting.  He was honest, real, and humble.

Recently, I linked to a flyer about an annual NC Alcoholics Anonymous conference on bringing AA into prisons. Some prisons in NC have developed such a good relationship with AA they allow sponsors to come and take prisoners to meetings.  THAT is recovery, both for the prison system and the individual.

Three-strikes-you’re -out: the thing about the habitual offender law; it doesn’t work.

  1. There are all sorts of offenses that are classified felonies, including non-violent, that don’t warrant life in prison and
  2. for true bad guys it is not an effective deterrent and
  3. States (like California) that had it and threw it out are glad it’s gone!  Their crime rates did NOT go up and they are saving millions of dollars. Three strike laws are ineffective at reducing overall crime rates and are responsible for crowding prisons. It was bad policy, bad lawmaking-originating out of the Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York era-and has been thoroughly discredited.

Btw, it’s been studied and it’s clear the same can be said for capital punishment. Believe it or not, the death sentence is not a deterrent.  If you want to better understand these issues, go see Sister Helen Prejean when she comes to speak.  Remember the movie, ‘Dead Man Walking’?  That lady.  She not only has a great personal story but this unassuming jailhouse nun paints a devastating picture of how out-of-whack and unbalanced our legal/prison system is.  Compelling cogent talks!  She’s speaking on April 14, from 12-1pm, in Room 5042 at the College of Law, UNC-CH and it is open to the public. In May I believe she comes back to receive an Honorary Degree.

Now-murder/manslaughter is profoundly serious business.  I sure-as-hell don’t take it lightly.  Grace of God I didn’t kill someone driving drunk, but the simple fact is recovery/redemption is for EVERYONE!  No one is excluded. Redemption does not mean religion; it means transformation from and through pain to restoration. From hell on earth to a chance at life.  So, back to the quote. There are some criminals we are afraid of, as a society and that’s ok.  Most of those addicted are not the ones we are afraid of, they are the ones we are mad at, and that’s ok.  It’s ok to for us be human and have feelings when we watch those around us, some we even love, kill themselves, sometimes quickly sometimes slowly, with drugs. The Recovery Community movement is not about making feelings “wrong”, it’s about framing those feelings within a broader landscape to give us perspective. Said perspective always leads us to hope and faith because recovery is a real thing.  We can be mad at them and still love them. They can engage in bad behavior and we can still comprehend they have a disease. The disease does not excuse bad behavior; it keeps us focused on the vision. The vision ahead-of recovery. That real thing up ahead we are moving toward.

I’d like to close with this story from a recent 60 Minutes episode. Their lead story, on prison reform in America, compares German prisons to ours and had some interesting perspective.