Addiction and Incarceration in America: End the Stigma

This series isn’t only my own story. It’s the story of others personally affected by addiction and incarceration.

This is the story of 500,000 people who are currently living behind bars for drug-related crimes. It is time to stop silencing the voices of those affected by addiction and incarceration, because we are so much more than the stigma we face. We are advocates, parents, siblings, significant others, and friends. More than that we are human. And we are worthy of ending the stigma.

My experiences have led me to pursue a career in social work so that I can help people understand these issues. I’ve learned the judgment I faced for my experiences comes from the fear of not understanding it, and of dehumanizing the faces behind these experiences. I’m here to humanize these faces so that we can begin to create a more welcoming world. Last year I became involved with an organization called American Friends Service Committee, which advocates for people who feel that their human rights are violated during their incarceration. At AFSC, I have been able to share my story and learn the stories of others affected by the same issues. We want to share our stories because we know firsthand how our justice system deals with addiction. We’re certain that the future and prosperity of our country depends on changing this system.

The power of connection.

One of people that I have learned a great deal from is my boss, Demetrius. Demetrius leads a program called the Good Neighbor Project through AFSC. The Good Neighbor Project is a co-mentorship program where free-world individuals and Michigan prisoners who are serving Life or Long Indeterminate sentences exchange letters or emails. This correspondence can develop strong, meaningful relationships that are meant to promote transformation, redemption, and healing. Demetrius has been one of my greatest mentors during my graduate school experience. He is selfless and encouraging beyond words. He would give the shirt off his back to help someone. I have come to know him as someone that makes the work place fun. Whether we’re debating criminal justice issues, cracking jokes and teasing each other, discussing his two year old son, or if he’s giving me advice about some aspect of my life, there’s always something to look forward to.

When we conduct Good Neighbor Project trainings together, there comes a part in the training where I always have to shake my head in disbelief. During our training, Demetrius reveals to new participants that he spent eighteen years incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections. It’s hard to believe that someone who is a successful hotel manager, group facilitator, pastor, husband, father, and mentor spent two decades of his life behind bars. Every time I hear his story, I have to admire him for his resilience, persistence, and life changes.

Aside from helping facilitate trainings for the Good Neighbor Project, I am also a participant with my own co-mentorship. My co-mentor is Marquis, who is currently incarcerated within the Michigan Department of Corrections, where he faces eleven more years of a thirty year sentence. Demetrius matches co-mentors based on similar questionnaire answers, and this could not be a more perfect match.

Originally, Marquis and I bonded over the similar hardships in life that we shared—the things that made us feel isolated. It was like we just clicked and were easily able to open up. Whether it be about having an incarcerated parent, experiencing the death of our mothers—both at age twenty—or growing up in poverty, we were able to discuss our issues. We found a shared connection in our pain, anger, and embarrassment that allowed us to build a sense of trust so we could explore these feelings.

When we opened up, we continued to find similarities. Although we mainly discuss criminal justice issues, we also have taken the time to learn about things that make each of us ourselves. For instance, we both grew up with a family tradition of decorating our Christmas trees with popcorn strings instead of tinsel. We’re both the youngest sibling and have cherished family recipes that were passed down to us.

Meeting Marquis has been an eye-opening experience because together, we have grown. We spend a lot of time focused on encouraging each other and creating a positive perspective in our lives because we both hope to be an advocate for societal change. Talking to Marquis is like talking to any other person I have a relationship with. I know that he is a movie buff with a love for video games. We’ve even discussed types of video games to create, and his creativity and wit are unmatchable. He is quirky, fun-loving, and spontaneous. I have learned from him how be be better at going with the flow and make the most out of whatever situation I am given.

Demetrius: Poverty, to Prison, to Good Neighbor

 Demetrius Good Neighbor Project

Demetrius’s story is all too common for people who grow up in poverty. Demetrius was born and raised on the West side of Detroit where he says drugs were a part of everyday life. In his own home, he watched his father return from the Vietnam war addicted to drugs. He said because of this, he always tried to stay away. But as a 20-year-old, he found that paying for school was harder than he thought.

Demetrius turned to how everyone in his neighborhood was making money: by selling cocaine. He said that he never really thought about the consequences. Caught up in the act, he never imagined he would get a harsh punishment if he were caught. After all, he never had any sort of record before, and he was a college kid. His intent was to sell drugs to get off of the street and get a degree so that he could leave the lifestyle he knew behind.

Demetrius did end up getting caught. Two judges in Oakland County refused to sentence him because they were not in agreement with the federal mandatory minimums around drug crimes. The mandatory minimums at the time called for “natural life,” meaning he would spend his whole life in prison. Instead, the judge sentenced him to thirteen-sixty years. The county was not satisfied with this and appealed it. He was then sentenced to two counts of natural life. Demetrius felt that there had to be something he could do about his situation since two judges refused to sentence him. He became an advocate for himself and studied law.

During his incarceration, about 70% of people he came in contact with were struggling with addiction, and their crimes had something to do with that struggle. Like Demetrius, many of them came from poverty, and he believes poverty did this to them. Sixteen years into his incarceration, mandatory minimums changed for first time, nonviolent offenders like Demetrius. He drafted up his own commutation and sent it to the parole board. After approving it, they sent it to the governor. After processing and eighteen years behind bars, he was once again a free man.

It wasn’t easy for Demetrius to re-enter the free world. There was a point where he didn’t want to face society because of its lack of forgiveness. Once you are incarcerated, the title follows you for life; we brand ex-cons as “second-class citizens.” Demetrius is currently an advocate for prison reform. He believes there is a need for a social structure where laws are carried out and implemented, but that the time should fit the crime. For Demetrius, it seems society believes in cruel and unusual punishment for those with drug crimes, as not providing the necessary resources for change is cruel and unusual.

“It wasn’t easy for Demetrius to re-enter the free world. There was a point where he didn’t want to face society because of its lack of forgiveness. Once you are incarcerated, the title follows you for life; we brand ex-cons as “second-class citizens.”

Marquis: Addiction As A Way Of Life

Marquis has 11 years left before he reaches the earliest possible release date for his sentence. He attributes drug use to his incarceration. If he had not been under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he may have been able to use some rational thinking instead of reacting to a situation with violence. Without his substance use, he feels like he probably would not be incarcerated.

Drugs were a regular part of Marquis’s upbringing. He feels like his whole life has been filled with drugs and alcohol. Being the baby of the family, his earliest role models were his sisters and mother. His sisters drank and smoked marijuana and his mother drank, smoked marijuana, cigarettes, and used crack/cocaine. Marquis followed their example and started drinking, using marijuana, and smoking cigarettes at the age of twelve. It was the lifestyle he knew. Even though his mother did not want him to take this path, she was too caught up in her own addiction to punish him. When his mother passed away from an overdose, he was angry and hurt, and fell even more heavily into using substances.

Addiction has always impacted Marquis’s life, and he believed it was the sole reason his family was torn apart. It not only introduced him to a world of substance use, but also to violence. As his use increased, he started to be pushed in a different direction; away from his hopes and dreams. His marijuana use escalated to the use of ecstasy. Through buying and selling drugs, Marquis witnessed violent acts daily. There were a lot of disputes over selling territories, drug sales, and a lot of angry reactions from the drugs themselves. Marquis said as he fell further into this world, he became numb to this violence. It became normalized. Mixing this mindset with dangerous substances, he found himself in the worst situation he has ever experienced.

Now Marquis lives his days in a correctional facility. He feels like substances led him to a life he never imagined. Living his life drunk and drugged up made him spiral out of control faster than he could keep up. Now he spends his days reflecting on the past. He knows that he is better than the choices he made and the way his life turned out. What he needed was someone to keep him on the right path and genuinely take an interest in his well-being. He did not have anyone like this, and instead idolized and imitated drug users. Knowing first-hand about the power of addiction, Marquis feels like this should affect the consequences. He believes that if addiction played a role in the crime, a lighter sentence and a form of rehabilitation should be imposed.

Instead of solving our country’s addiction problem, we’ve become a society that disregards millions of people with an addiction—people that need help. As a result, many people are spending long terms in our prisons, without access to the resources they need. Prisons aren’t just filled with criminals; they’re filled with untreated addicts. I have one last thing to say: it is time to speak up and do better.

Doing My Dad’s Time: Family, Addiction, and Incarceration In America

My father suffered from an addiction that led to his incarceration. Now? It’s time to break the silence about what that meant for both of us.

For the first time in my life, I’m ready to talk about a secret I’ve held on to for the past twenty years. I’m one of the 2.7 million children in our country with a formerly incarcerated parent.

I share my story because often, children of addicts and children of inmates are silent victims. I share my story because I understand the shame, guilt, and anger you feel when someone you love suffers from addiction. I share my story because having an addicted loved one is often life-changing, and we deserve some self-pity and understanding sometimes. Mostly, I share my story to let you know that you are not alone and that we don’t have to continue our struggles in silence.

“Addiction is a powerful force. It can change your life in the blink of an eye. To be honest, that’s how it felt for me.”

Addiction is a powerful force. It can change your life in the blink of an eye.

To be honest, that’s how it felt for me. I know now that his addiction and illegal acts were occurring before I was born, but at the time, it all seemed to happen so fast. One day I was a child, just shy of three, living with my two parents, brother, sister, and two dogs in an upper-class neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona. Then comes the divide in my memory. There is a distinct “before” and “after” in my childhood memories. Before just seems like it was some fairytale wish in my young mind.

The moment “after” began is still clear as day in my memories; I remember having to stay inside, behind closed drapes, because reporters weren’t leaving us alone as they tried to cover this “prestigious judge’s arrest.” I remember entering a very dark, gray building that was covered in rows and rows of razor wire. I remember being surrounded by cops and just knowing that “we were going to see daddy before we moved,” but not understanding why daddy was here. I remember my dad in a green jumpsuit and taking a family photo against a cheerful backdrop, like we weren’t inside a maximum security prison. I remember it being time to go and screaming “I want my daddy,” over and over, until I was hysterical. No one listened; he was still taken away. I remember not understanding. Other than that, all I knew from this point on is that “daddy is in trouble and daddy is in prison for a little while.” This was the last time I saw my dad for five years.

“I remember entering a very dark, gray building that was covered in rows and rows of razor wire.”

My dad is an extremely intelligent and educated man.

He was at one time the top presiding judge in Tempe, Arizona. He was only twenty-six when he was sworn in, making him one of the youngest in the country. He was a dedicated father, and we seemed to have everything we could want. He had also been gambling since he was thirteen.

In April, 1995, my dad pleaded guilty to single counts of fraudulent schemes and artifices, bribery, theft of public money, and conspiracy to obstruct a criminal investigation. This charge was a result of a scheme that funneled more than $478,000 to my dad to pay off heavy gambling debts. After over twenty years of an addiction, he was forced to stop, because he simply ran out of money. He said that his addiction did not merely contribute to his incarceration, but was the sole and complete rationale, reason, and cause for it.

By the time he reached the final stages of addiction, gambling was the only relevant factor in his life’s pursuit and direction.

He was no longer in charge, and having turned his life, emotional structure, and sense of personal responsibility and moral direction around, he had no conception of consequence or feeling of regret for his actions. The possible consequences were never considered. He said that his addiction destroyed every valuable part and component of his life and that the single most lingering pain is the trust, love, and time he lost from those he loves the most. The impact of this revisits him on a daily basis, seventeen years after his release from prison. The realization of how his addiction and actions have altered his life are hard to come to terms with. During his time in prison, he felt like he failed the ones who counted on him for everything. The process of coping and healing is one that takes a lifetime to repair and work towards.

“The process of coping and healing is one that takes a lifetime to repair and work towards.”

While in prison, my dad struggled to find treatment.

He said that getting the right services is not merely helpful, but an essential life support system during a time when someone’s life is ruled by addiction. This help is not something he found during his incarceration. He feels as if addiction is purely a medical problem as surely as cancer, diabetes, or AIDS, and as such it requires a medical solution. Until such time as a medical solution is found, addiction’s accompanying social, legal, and moral problems can’t be effectively addressed; let alone solved.

Thus, life lived in the “after” became normal. In the beginning, I remember a lot of tears. I can clearly recall the stress and pain on my mom’s face because she wasn’t sure what to do. My mom was diagnosed with a genetic heart defect before I was born. It was slowly but surely progressing into congestive heart failure. The arrest of my dad seemed to be progressing her symptoms. She now had to worry about raising three kids under the age of ten alone on top of her disability. In the early months after our cross country move to Michigan, I spent a lot of time curled up on her lap with a box of tissues. I remember wiping her tears and telling her it would be okay. My mom’s needs became my biggest concern. Everything that was going on inside of me sort of internalized. Our privileged lifestyle was yanked away and replaced with poverty. This was when my vow of silence started; I wouldn’t speak of my situation to anyone, not even friends.

 Girl with dad selfie

Growing up in a rural town in northern Michigan with a population under 10,000 did not particularly encourage me to break my silence. There wasn’t much diversity, and I felt like the only different one. I was constantly aware of the differences setting me apart from this middle-class world. If anything, my vow of silence intensified. I hid parts of my reality, but it was sometimes difficult. In a small town, people know too many intimate details of my life. Even from a young age I knew there was a negative stigma associated with the details about my life that they knew. Everyone knew I lived with a single mom who had a disability. I did all I could to prevent adding “child whose dad has a gambling addiction and is in prison” to this label. We learn from an early age that “bad guys” get caught or that “bad guys” go to jail. But I never saw my dad as a bad person. He was my dad, after all.

I closed myself off from others out of shame, fear, and embarrassment over my situation. I felt terrified of how people would view me. I was petrified of being judged. I was angry at my dad and the life I was given. I never spoke up because I didn’t think anyone would understand. How could they possibly understand my sadness, stress, and pain? I couldn’t risk them shaming me or shaming my family. I couldn’t risk any of this because we live in a world where we know addiction consumes people and their families, but we still call it a choice. Silence became my friend because it was too difficult to explain how alone I felt; how much I wished I could be the child of an able-bodied mom and the successful father. The truth is though, this is normal for many in our country. Of the 2 million people in our prison systems, 500,000 are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. So if you’ve dealt with addiction or incarceration as a result of it, then you are not alone.

As someone caught in the aftermath of my parent’s addiction, choices, and incarceration, I saw the situation from a different perspective.

I wished I could break my silence and tell them about my reality and my pain. I wished I could tell them that my mom, siblings, and I were not involved in my dad’s decisions. My mom didn’t even know about the extent of his addiction. I wish I could go back and tell myself and everyone else what I know now; your parent’s actions and crimes do not define you. You do not have to follow in their path.

“I wish I could go back and tell myself and everyone else what I know now; your parent’s actions and crimes do not define you. You do not have to follow in their path.”

These childhood experiences colored the path for my development over the years. My dad’s addiction and incarceration was not a single moment that happened. His situation is something that I have grown and developed around. After my dad became incarcerated, I began to struggle with anxiety and trust issues. I felt unloved, and that I couldn’t count on my dad. After his release, this did not improve. My dad’s mental health began to deteriorate.

My dad had been diagnosed with bipolar type II disorder before, but the symptoms seemed to be mostly under control until his release from prison. It wasn’t uncommon for my dad to go through manic and depressive periods. For a period he would tell us “everything is going to get better” and then a month or few months later he would be self-pitying, disconnected, irritable, and we didn’t hear from him for months; once he didn’t contact us for two years. Although he was sober, the effects of his addiction and incarceration seemed to have lasting effects.

What was once silence, sadness, and confusion became intense anger.

Even though my mother was the biggest blessing in my life, I was angry at her even though she was just as much a victim as I was. Addiction does weird things to families. It causes you anger and grief, and somehow it becomes easier to lash out at those who are there than the one with the addiction. Addiction and incarceration strain families. Things do not magically get better after your parent is sober or is released from prison. This process takes time. There is a lot of “you owe us an explanation! Do you expect me to forget?” You were never there when I needed you growing up.”

“Addiction does weird things to families. It causes you anger and grief, and somehow it becomes easier to lash out at those who are there than the one with the addiction.”

I remember countless nights lying on the floor, sobbing over the way my life was. I was never going to be able to have honest relationships because I didn’t want to tell them about my dad. I didn’t deserve happiness. If I did decide to tell someone, they would just think that I’m too much to handle; that I have too much baggage. I didn’t think I was normal. I felt broken and worthless. For awhile, settling into this pain was a lot easier than forgiveness.

 Girl at the University of Michigan School of Social Work

I have come to learn that I am my own person, capable of making my own decisions, independent of his decisions. There are a lot of things I learned by being the daughter of an addicted parent, and one is that yes, the experiences I have had have made me feel terrified, embarrassed and misunderstood, but they have also turned me into someone who is empowered, resilient, and insightful. To stay silent, would be to allow the negative things to control me.

I have a passion to do things differently. Doing things differently for me meant learning to understand my dad’s situation. It means not letting others tell me how I should feel about it, or how I should be healing. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told that being angry isn’t the answer. But feeling angry is natural. Healing is a long, painful process. Eventually, I forgave him. I recognized that I cannot change what has been done, but things can change if I’m willing to try.

“I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told that being angry isn’t the answer. But feeling angry is natural. Healing is a long, painful process.”

My healing process has given me a passion for social justice, and I’m no longer ashamed to talk about this part of my life.

Once I realized that I wasn’t alone in my struggle, it became easier to heal. It also gets easier as time passes. Today, my dad has been sober of his gambling addiction for a little over twenty-three years. At nearly sixty-seven years old, he regularly competes in Crossfit competitions and has recently become a certified personal trainer. Our relationship has come a long way from what it once was, but we are always working on rebuilding bridges. It is not a straight path. I am ready to take control of my path. My voice can no longer be silenced.

“I am ready to take control of my path. My voice can no longer be silenced.”