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Seventy percent of the more than two million people in U.S. prisons are doing time for drug or alcohol-related crimes. But researchers at the Urban Institute say that only 15 percent of those prisoners are treated for their addictions while incarcerated. That means that after they're released, many may end up back in prison for committing new drug-related crimes.
Now, a group of prisoners in San Quentin State Prison in California are trying to break that cycle. They are training to become certified drug and alcohol counselors to treat fellow inmates.
Nancy Mullane of member station KALW reports.
(Soundbite of bell)
NANCY MULLANE: It's about 4 o'clock in the afternoon inside San Quentin State Prison. Looking up, rolls of razor wire gripped the tops of 40-foot stonewalls. Uniformed guards with guns and mace are everywhere, except that is for inside the prison chapel.
There, about two-dozen inmates are sitting in tight circles around the edges of the sanctuary. It's the once-a-week, all-daylong Addiction Recovery Counseling Program. After one-on-one counseling sessions and a class on tobacco addiction, the men have gathered for group counseling and are talking about some of the toxic ingredients in tobacco.
Mr. BRIAN SMITH (Inmate Counselor, San Quentin State Prison): All these (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: How about arsenic?
Mr. SMITH: Arsenic. Yeah.
Unidentified Man: Cyanide?
Mr. SMITH: Cyanide.
Unidentified: They even get papers and they get that in tobacco.
Unidentified Man: Mm-hmm.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. And it's legal(ph).
MULLANE: The men lean on to listen to Brian Smith. He has served 24 years of a life sentence. He's also the group's counselor in training.
Mr. SMITH: So are you guys experiencing any kind of stress or…
Unidentified Man: Sure, everybody has it whether they realized it or not. You know what I mean?
Mr. SMITH: A person in jail is pretty high on the list. And it's either they're divorced, life-threatening (unintelligible) issues.
MULLANE: Smith guides the discussion. Two years ago, this kind of peer counseling program wasn't available to prisoners anywhere in the country.
Today, San Quentin's program is one of a kind. It all started when Smith and a half dozen other inmates began looking for a drug-treatment program to bring into the prison that would go beyond what they already had.
Inmate Don Kronk.
Mr. DON KRONK (Inmate, San Quentin State Prison): At one point in my incarceration, I realized that addiction is just one part of the problem. It's just the symptom - the actual outward appearance of what's really going on inside. And I realized that there's a lot more to this and just an AA group or something wasn't going deep enough.
MULLANE: Kronk says what the group found was the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, or CAADAC. It was right about then that Claire-Elizabeth DeSophia, a licensed psychotherapist, was beginning to volunteer at San Quentin.
Ms. CLAIRE-ELIZABETH DeSOPHIA (Psychotherapist): The first day that I got there, I discovered that there was no drug and alcohol treatment program there. And I was really shocked.
MULLANE: DeSophia began working with the inmates and found an ally in the prison's warden, Robert Ayers.
Mr. ROBERT AYERS (Warden, San Quentin State Prison): It's easy to underestimate inmates, you know, by thinking they're just a bunch of criminals and thugs and, you know, single-digit IQs and things like that. And the reality is they're not.
MULLANE: Addiction specialists at local universities and drug and alcohol treatment centers came into the prison to teach the credential classes.
Nina Ferraris was the first to volunteer.
Ms. NINA FERRARIS (Manager, John Muir Behavioral Health Center for Recovery, California): They were so in want of education.
MULLANE: Ferraris is program manager at the John Muir Behavioral Health Center for Recovery and an assistant professor.
Ms. FERRARIS: I have taught a lot of classes and I have never taught a class where people were so receptive. They did their work so well. They were respectful. They were excited about it. They asked a lot of questions and then their personal histories just completely support the work that we're doing with them.
MULLANE: The men's personal histories involved failing educations, serious drug and alcohol-related crimes, such as manslaughter and robbery, and years of prison. Ferraris says that life experience uniquely qualifies them to counsel fellow inmates.
Inmate Bobby Brown is one of the counselors in training.
Mr. BOBBY BROWN (Inmate; Counselor, San Quentin State Prison): We know when they're not being truthful with us. They can't get past us on that. Or even when they're in denial, we know the symptoms of denial because we've been in denial for a long time.
MULLANE: So Bobby Brown and a dozen other inmates took the seven courses, studying such things as case management, the neurobiology of addiction and law and ethics. Then they begin the 4,000 internship hours, counseling fellow inmates. And earlier this summer, they took CAADAC's rigorous three-hour written exam.
A month later, CAADAC's executive director Rhonda Messamore returned to the prison with the results. After moving through the prison's layered security, Messamore joins the men anxiously waiting in the chapel. She pulls the dark blue credential folders out of her case, and one by one announces the names of those who passed.
Ms. RHONDA MESSAMORE (Executive Director, California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors): I am honored to call Robert C. Morales.
(Soundbite of applause)
MULLANE: Again and again, the men erupt in cheers. Tears fill their eyes as they rushed to hug one another.
Ms. MESSAMORE: Does not come without hard work, (unintelligible) Jermaine Billy Gamboa(ph).
(Soundbite of applause)
MULLANE: For a brief moment, the walls of the prison seemed to evaporate as the chapel fills with the sounds of celebration and success. Nine of the eleven men have passed the test. Looking around the chapel, one of the inmates is standing against the wall, clutching his certificate in his hand. He's overcome and looking for a place to cry. There is no private place in prison so he puts his face to the wall and sobs, his shoulders heaving.
Back in the circle, Brian Smith speaks to everyone about what the certification means.
Mr. SMITH: It's hard to wake up in a cage every day unless you do have a dream. We just appreciated it all. And there's not enough words that I could say, and I am sure some of the men could comment on, but this is a good day. It's a good day. We just thank everybody.
MULLANE: After 24 years in prison, Brian Smith learned yesterday that his request for parole was granted. On the outside, he plans to use his counseling certificate to get a job and help others stay out of places like San Quentin.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.
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