Yesterday, I learned that a friend of mine, a young woman for whom I care a real lot, was sentenced to 360 days in county jail in Florida. Today, I will follow the new Florida regulations and send her a few new books to read directly from Amazon, the only way that one can send books to Florida prisoners is by buying them new from Amazon and having them sent directly to our friends behind bars.
My friend, who we will call Lucy for this story as she has red hair, stole more than $200 worth of stuff from a Ross discount store in St. Petersburg, Florida. She violated her probation for a drug related arrest a few years earlier after relapsing on heroin and opioid pain pills and had a number of other statutory offenses piled on her at trial. Today, I believe that it is better for society, as we are currently organized, that Lucy remain behind bars for a while as her stealing, driving under the influence and other behaviors are anti-social and, until she learns not to engage in criminal activity, she needs to be kept off of our streets.
My friend Lucy loves to read. While I think her criminal activities need to be stopped, I also remember that she is, indeed, still a human and is a human I love. Years ago, my friend and local AA legend, Tellis Lawson and I would do recovery “commitments” (we would go to places and talk about addiction and recovery) in prisons and jails here in Massachusetts. Then, roughly 15 years ago, we would load up a cardboard carton or two with books from a cheap used book store here in Cambridge. We would include a few books about recovery but mostly bring detective novels, science fiction and anything else we could get at a place that sold used books by the pound. The prisoners, all men as we only talked in mens’ prisons, looked forward to our visits and, more than seeing Tellis and me, they looked forward to a new pile of books. Prisons and jails are really boring so new reading materials are greatly valued by people residing in such places.
When I heard Lucy was going away for a while, I called her most recent and not terribly criminal boyfriend to ask how I could send her a box of books. He looked into what I needed to do and, sadly, discovered that the Sunshine State prohibits (by law) prisoners from receiving used books. Apparently, it’s easy to smuggle contraband into a jailhouse by soaking some pages of a used book in a drug laden solution so, to stop this practice, Florida banned all used books from its prisons and jailhouses. The only way I can send Lucy books under the new laws is to buy the book new from Amazon and have it sent directly to the prisoner, ensuring that the sender’s hands and drugs have not touched the volume before delivery. While this policy makes some sense, I can now, instead of sending a whole carton containing dozens of books, only send a couple of books at a time. Hence, Lucy and the new friends she’s making in jail will only have a couple of books to enjoy instead of a pile of items from a store called Buck A Book.
Lucy is in jail not because she shoplifted items from Ross but, rather, because she is a drug addict in a nation without reasonable health care for its citizens. Lucy suffers from Substance Abuse Disorder, she cannot control her urges to obtain and inject herself with opiates/opioids. From years of using heroin, OXY Codone and other synthetic opioids, Lucy’s brain, via neuroplasticity has rewired itself and her brain “screams” to her to get the chemicals it desires. If Lucy had health insurance, she could have gone to a clinic and gotten treatment for her addiction but, without such, in Florida, she had no opportunity to get the help she so desperately needed nor did our society have the opportunity to rescue a really smart, and talented individual so she could contribute to our world. Instead, by keeping some drugs illegal, treating addicts as criminals and keeping the price of dope on the streets really high, we create a subculture of addiction in the criminal community that prevents addicts from seeking treatment and maintain a level of otherwise peaceful people in an archipelago of prisons around the nation.
According to a 2009 study of women in US prisons, roughly two thirds of the more than 200,000 women incarcerated in this country are behind bars for substance abuse and other non-violent charges. That’s roughly 125,000 women sitting in jailhouses on the tax payer’s nickel, people who could have, for a lot fewer dollars, received treatment for their addictions, remained with their families and worked toward the goal of getting clean, sober and becoming a healthy member of society.
That some drugs, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, LSD, XTC, methamphetimine and others remain illegal while alcohol, America’s most deadly intoxicant, runs advertisements on virtually all media selling itself to all segments of our society demonstrates the profound hypocrisy of this great nation’s policies toward substance abuse. More than an inconsistency in policy, this system causes the prices of illegal drugs to rise much above standard market forces would allow, these are typically cheap to produce and, if not kept illegal, easy to distribute and, given a consumer base that is driven by atypical brain chemistry causing an intense desire to use the drugs, it could be something done very inexpensively, cutting down on the collateral crimes associated with addiction. If someone could maintain their heroin habit for five dollars, instead of $150, per day, they wouldn’t need to go shoplifting at Ross, Wal-Mart or Target, instead, they could find a few bucks and be satisfied. Furthermore, if addicts got their drugs from a center where they could also receive treatment, most would elect to get clean instead of continuing the miserable existence of a junky.
It costs the US approximately $45,000 per year to keep a person in prison before factoring in the costs of policing, administration, guards and the like. This means that, to keep women in prison for entirely non-violent offenses, our taxpayers get a bill for roughly, $5,940,000,000 every year. I ask, couldn’t we spend about a third of that on addiction treatment instead?
I know a lot of addicts because I am one. I’ve been sober and clean from my own opiate addiction for many years now. I attend 12 step meetings regularly and find that the fellowship to which I belong helps me tremendously as I go through life without alcohol or pills, my drugs of choice. I use marijuana medically and get through life pretty well. I did, however, have advantages back in 1997 when I got clean, that Lucy does not. I had terrific health insurance and lived in Massachusetts, home to the best health care in America. I got to go to two very nice hospitals for extended stays and had, along with my 12 step program, as much professional help as I could possibly have needed. Lucy, in Florida and without insurance, tried continuously to get clean but, with only the fellowship to help her and virtually no access to hospitals or professionals, she slipped and slid, relapsed and, with a $200 per day habit, found herself shoplifting at a Ross – an outcome bad for her, bad for Ross and bad for our society.
So, sitting here in my safe Cambridge home, all I can do to help my friend is to send her a few books. I’m actually glad Lucy is in jail, the only place in Florida where an addict can get the treatment she needs. I’m entirely certain that our system regarding addiction in the US is sorely broken and that the only solutions that may work is to end the criminalization of substance abuse disorder but, given the puritanical notions in American culture that addiction is actually weakness, I doubt we’ll get there in my lifetime. Healthcare based on science and evidence seems to be ignored in this country when regarding addiction and our privatized prisons need to keep humans of minimal threat to society warehoused to continue making money.
If you, my loyal readers, have a few spare bucks, you might think of sending a few books to a non-violent drug offender in prison. These people need to know that we still love them in spite of what they’ve done. We need to remind them that they matter so, when they get out, they can more easily reintegrate into a society in which they feel welcome. Otherwise, we condemn these poor and sick people to a lifetime of undue suspicion, a sense of isolation and a likely relapse starting the entire cycle all over again.