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Breaking Free Experimental Program Uses Counseling, Acupuncture To Give Drug Addicts Better Chance Of Staying Straight

(For the record, from Saturday, January 28, 1995:) Chemical-dependency counselor Gordon Johnston was incorrectly identified as a recovering alcoholic in a Sunday story. He is a recovering drug addict with a family history of alcoholism.

‘I’m Scott. I’m an alcoholic and I feel hopeful.”

“I’m Charlie. I’m an addict and I feel grateful.”

They sit in a circle - 22 men getting in touch with their inner selves, tearing down walls of denial. A couple of hours ago most were in acupuncture, relaxing in padded chairs, thumbing through magazines with clusters of needles sticking in their ears.

Now they pass around a wellthumbed book of daily meditations, nodding approvingly. “Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival,” they read.

None of this touchy-feely stuff would raise eyebrows in a private clinic.

But these men are convicts, a group branded least likely to succeed. The treatment center is behind barbed wire, in the middle of a Washington prison.

Call it an experiment, but what is going on inside Pine Lodge PreRelease on the shores of Medical Lake could revolutionize the state prison system. Inmates are getting intensive substance-abuse treatment for the first time.

“It doesn’t necessarily make nicer people or happier people, but it will reduce crime,” promises Corrections Director Chase Riveland.

And slowing the breakneck pace of prison construction, Riveland says, could save taxpayers a bundle.

It’s simple mathematics:

Eighty percent of Washington’s 11,000 inmates have been hooked on drugs or alcohol, studies show.

The average addict is either breaking the law or behind bars 255 days a year.

It costs $24,000 a year to keep one convict in prison.

If imprisoned alcoholics and addicts nearing release dates can stay clean and sober, it stands to reason fewer of them will return, says Patty Terry, Corrections’ chemicaldependency expert.

“Treatment works,” she says. “The public just doesn’t know it.”

While conservative lawmakers and prosecutors express doubts, there is unflinching support for the Pine Lodge program in the governor’s office, despite the million-dollar-ayear price.

Hence, a pledge to run it for at least three years, tracking hundreds of “graduates.”

The stakes are huge.

If the rate of convicts being returned to prison drops significantly, Riveland will push to duplicate the program in other prisons. If not, state money will dry up in a hurry.

What is being hailed as the nation’s most sophisticated treatment program behind bars began with baby steps in July 1993.

Since last summer, the program has been in full stride. The number of inmate enrollees has tripled, from 24 to 72 per session, as has the number of counselors, from two to six.

A clinic supervisor, Jim Loudermilk, was recently hired, and there are two part-time, state-certified acupuncturists. More importantly, the length of treatment has stretched from six weeks to 12.

Five days a week, inmates get group and individual counseling. They sit for lectures on victim awareness and relapse prevention. They also get vocational training and attend educational classes, such as horticulture, car maintenance and computer literacy. At night, they join Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous support groups.

Before leaving prison, they watch motivational videos and are taught how to apply for jobs.

“It’s the Cadillac model, the best we can offer,” Terry says.

Most of the men and women filtering through Pine Lodge are chronic drug and alcohol abusers.

Many have survived hellish childhoods, scarred by abuse or abandonment. Few have confronted their problems, or realize they exist. They’ve all screwed up their lives, even if their lives were screwed up to begin with.

A tough bunch to fix.

During group counseling sessions, slick inner-city drug dealers sit alongside greasy tattooed thieves, who take a seat next to first-timers, like the John Denver lookalike who got drunk once too often and crushed a child with his car.

Talk to them and they speak earnestly about wanting to start over.

“I’ve found a whole new outlook,” says inmate James Hayes.

He is 26 with sleepy eyes, tousled hair and a beard dense enough to hide a hamster. A skull tattoo snakes over his right bicep, inflated by daily iron-pumping workouts.

Hayes is a seven-time loser. Prison is a second home.

He’s been “shooting dope” for 15 years. He was raised around bikers in Portland, so he figures it was only natural to sell methamphetamine - a favorite drug among some gangs.

That, plus the money. He earned $1,000 a day.

In the past, Hayes shunned drug treatment even if it meant staying behind bars longer. He never believed he had a problem.

A funny thing happened about a month into the Pine Lodge treatment program, though. He found himself examining his life: the people he hurt, the drug money that slipped away, the energy he wasted looking over his shoulder for police.

In a week or so, Hayes heads with confidence to Yakima, where his father lives. He’ll be on work release, probably earning minimum wage.

“It’s going to be hard. My biggest addiction wasn’t drugs, it was money,” he says. “But all I see in my future is success.”

The key: “People listening to me.”

Eddie Moore feels the same way.

Caught selling crack cocaine in the alleys of Seattle, Moore wound up in prison last year for the first time. After going through treatment, he confesses to being shocked at how much of his life he has wasted. He is now 40, with a teenage daughter whom he hardly knows.

Moore is a handsome man with a college education. He ran a halfway house until the criminals he supervised introduced him to crack. It’s been a wild, downhill tumble ever since.

Unlike Hayes, Moore looks into the future and trembles.

“I’m scared to death about what it’ll be like on the outside, running into all those old connections,” he says, stroking his new Nike basketball shoes. “Hell, there’s a row of crack houses across the street from the work-release center.”

It’s remarkable watching prison hardened men spout buzzwords like “co-dependency” and “avoidance.”

Most are surprisingly, tearfully candid. But even those who don’t open up sometimes offer insight.

“I have fears of saying things the wrong way, of finding out bad things about myself that I’m not ready to face up to yet,” confesses one man.

Says another: “I’m afraid of facing my problem. Growing up, we’re taught to be strong, not show any sign of weakness.”

Their counselor, Gordon Johnston, a recovering alcoholic, urges them to “get real and honest.”

“I don’t have any delusions,” he says afterward. “Some of these people haven’t had three days of being straight in 20 years. Realistically, we can maybe expect to reduce recidivism by 30 percent.”

Riveland would consider that a triumph.

Two years ago, Washington’s prison population grew at a pace that led the nation. The explosive trend continues, fueled by wave after wave of anti-crime initiatives and legislation.

Today, one out of every 100 citizens in this state is behind bars or under community supervision - that’s about 50,000, nearly enough to fill the Kingdome and twice the number from five years ago.

The result: overcrowded prisons and a $684 million biennial Corrections budget projected to soar to $1.1 billion by the year 2003.

Enter Pine Lodge Superintendent Ernie Packebush, who has operated the 316-bed prison for 11 years.

Somehow, he remains an optimist. He holds a master’s degree in psychology and has gone to night school to study chemical-dependency counseling.

Packebush began lobbying for treatment money three years ago because he was tired of watching addicts leave his prison only to return months later in even worse shape.

“All we’ve got to sell them is hope,” he says. “Hope that there’s another way - a better way.”

To qualify for the program, inmates have to be diagnosed as seriously chemically dependent, have 18 months or less left on their sentence, and be new to the state prison system.

Hand-picked recruits arrive each week from the prison reception center in Shelton. They come shackled in small groups, wearing bright orange jumpsuits.

Like a general reviewing troops, Loudermilk addresses them in the prison’s wood-paneled chapel. The inmates usually spend the first day griping about TV reception and rules against unsupervised movement and NFL jackets.

“You can spend the whole time you’re here being a critic,” he tells them, “or you can seize the day. It’s your choice.”

Acupuncture is voluntary, but strongly encouraged.

Loudermilk says the ancient Chinese healing art, suddenly in vogue in drug-treatment centers nationwide, eases withdrawal symptoms and relaxes most people, making them more amenable to treatment.

Some inmates swear by it. Morton Perry says he not only quit craving drugs, he quit smoking and won a prison pool tournament.

“Those little needles they put in your ear really work,” he says.

So far, 175 men have gone through treatment. Women are only now entering the program.

Statistics and success rates won’t be ready until next summer, after the Pine Lodge graduates are compared with a control group of inmate addicts released with no treatment.

“If there’s a weakness, it’s that we don’t have real solid drug treatment available in our communities,” Riveland says.

“The best treatment should take place in the community, because they’re going to have to go back to the same block where they came from, with the same influences and pressures.”

Inmates leaving Pine Lodge treatment appear more motivated to go straight than others, says Chris Schilling, a Spokane community corrections officer.

“They come out feeling real strong,” he says. “They’ve got an idea in their mind that they’re going to avoid their old dope-fiend buddies.”

While the typical offender on work release “kind of flounders around,” Pine Lodge graduates are constantly asking for passes to attend AA and NA meetings.

Will they keep it up, year after year?

Schilling doesn’t think so. The benefits of prison treatment in terms of reducing drug-related crime will be so slight, he predicts, the public probably won’t notice.

Succeed or fail, inmates leaving the program are grateful.

They include Clayton “Fergie” Fergerson, a drug dealer looking forward to rejoining his wife and kids.

“They got me to be honest with myself,” he says. “Finally.”

ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color) Graphic: State’s population growth compared to jump in number of convicts Graphic: Washington’s increasingly crowded prisons