Governor Charlie Baker and the legislative leadership should be applauded for moving aggressively to address the opioid crisis. This epidemic is not new, but has now reached our most privileged communities. For the less privileged minority communities, it has long paved a road of destruction, incarceration, and death.
Our war on drugs over the past 30 years has created a largely forgotten population of citizens in their own drug crisis: those returning from prisons and jails.
The shortage of treatment resources in the community perpetuates a revolving door of release, relapse, and recidivism. Although there may be good substance-abuse treatment programs inside prisons and jails, there is a serious lack of support once inmates return to the community. An institutionalized population steps into a maze of underfunded and fragmented services.
The numbers within the jail population alone are astounding. Nine million people are released from jail each year in the United States. Seventy-five percent have a history of substance abuse. After their release, 95 percent return to drugs and alcohol. Sixty-eight percent are reincarcerated within three years.
This is a vulnerable and often neglected group with complex needs and considerations. Many face poverty, homelessness, and mental health challenges. Even the briefest incarceration separates an individual from their daily lives and resources, often resulting in lost jobs, housing, transportation, and daily supports. Turning back to crime is frequently the most viable option to survive.
And relapsing to drugs and alcohol may seem like the only way to find relief from the stress and loss.
Over the past five years, I had the opportunity to work with filmmaker Bestor Cram, of Northern Light Productions, and witness the struggles of reentry among six returning citizens after terms of incarceration. Their stories are the subject of our new documentary film, “Beyond the Wall.”
Our initial goal for the film was to focus on prison reentry, and to steer clear of substance abuse. But we saw immediately that substance abuse was at the center of the problem.
Throughout the filming, we saw the struggles and triumphs of these men as they attempted to establish themselves in their communities and families. For many, their struggles led them back to their addiction. With limited resources available to them to address issues of acute substance abuse and the competition over scarce services, many relapsed and returned to prison.
A possible solution to this endless cycle of drug and alcohol relapse and reincarceration appeared one day early in our filming, when we met Louie Diaz.
Eighteen years ago, Louie was on the inside looking out. As a result of his addiction, he was incarcerated. When he returned to the community, with a lot of support from others, he successfully navigated his own reentry/recovery process.
Today, Louie works in the community as a reentry specialist at Lowell House Inc., a community-based human services agency. His job takes him inside prisons and jails preparing men for release. More important, he is a support system for them when they return to the community. He is an invaluable link between the inside and outside.
We witnessed him working the streets of Lowell and Lawrence, approaching addicts and homeless people with the refrain “I can get you into a detox program.” We followed him as he worked with folks like Rey, Jesus, Diddy, and countless others.
He is able to offer unconditional support and an experiential understanding of the culture of the streets. Because of his background, he is able to operate within the established reentry programs and institutions while also working at the chaotic level of the streets.
While the governor and legislative leadership bring attention to the opioid crisis, it is imperative to recognize the difficulties returning citizens have accessing the vital services they need to recover and successfully remain in the community.
As we search for solutions to the lack of treatment programs, we should consider the value of applying the wisdom and life experience of the formerly incarcerated who have successfully returned home, and direct more dollars to community-based treatment programs. Otherwise, we will continue to incarcerate more than any other industrialized nation and spend billions of dollars on walls and bars.
Jenny Phillips is a filmmaker, cultural anthropologist, and psychotherapist who has been teaching in mental health programs in Massachusetts prisons and jails for 20 years.