Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(8), pp. 18-19
My name is Curtis. I'm a federal inmate doing five years for crimes that I accept full responsibility for; crimes that stem from an eight-year addiction to heroin. I have now been clean for 16 months.
I know the exact date I quit using, because it was the day my best friend, my older brother, died. He was 27—the same age I am now. Heroin killed my brother. He didn't die of an overdose—he suffered through the last couple of months of his life with a disease similar to mad cow disease, caused by a chemical reaction when heroin is smoked off of tin foil.1
I wasn't able to physically be with my brother while he was dying because of my sentence, but I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to visit him a few weeks before he died. There is a photo of us tacked to my cell wall: he is in his hospital bed, clearly dying from a powder that we thought brought nothing but pleasure; and I, the more impulsive of the two of us, am shackled to his bed, under the watch of two correctional officers. My brother and I are the 'poster children' for "don't do drugs." I promised him that day—as I said good-bye, knowing it was the very last time I would ever see him alive—that I would change my ways.
Some people might expect that I was in the ideal place to change my behaviour. Based on their limited, mostly media-driven knowledge of the justice system, they might think that prison time in Canada is as much about reforming 'bad' people as it is about punishment and protecting public safety, and that I would have access to the resources I needed to change.
Let me summarize what my "treatment" program has been. It took 18 months for me just to get into a drug and alcohol program that ran for about six weeks, Monday through Friday, for 90 minutes. The program gave me an opportunity to "think" about my addiction and gave me great insight, but when the program ended there was no follow-up. I could "think" about my addiction, but wasn't given any additional tools to apply what I had learned.
What is more disturbing is that I waited 27 months to do a highly recommended violence prevention program, only to be told that, because I was doing time for my first violent offence, I wasn't considered violent enough to participate. When I informed my wife I'd have to wait until my next criminal conviction to take a violence prevention course, she couldn't believe it until I showed her the official paperwork.
If these two examples are not confirmation enough that prison acts as a warehouse and should not be a default treatment system, I don't know what is. In my humble opinion, half of the men I live among would be better served in a psychiatric hospital than here. We are entitled to just three hours a year with a psychiatrist.
After my brother's death I was given my three visits with a psychiatrist, at my request, because I was feeling suicidal. I'm sorry I ever reached out for help. I wasn't aware of the three-hour limit. I divulged some of the most personal details of my sorrows, of a life filled with abuse, loss and self-hate. After three sessions—just enough time for me to start opening up—I was left feeling raw, and in the weeks following I became increasingly depressed and suicidal. If it wasn't for my wife's support (that is truly heaven sent!) and an extended family who always knew I had the potential to change my life, I would have been left to struggle through my grief and confusion on my own—as do so many of the men in here, who have no one to supporting them and who rely entirely on this system.
Prison is a warehouse—and the university where you learn bigger and bolder crimes. If its purpose is punishment, then for me it was successful. Prison means being separate from the people I love. It meant that at my brother's funeral I was not able to touch or to be comforted by anyone. It meant grieving without being able to express my emotions, since in prison that is an expression of weakness. If prison's purpose is to protect the safety of the public, it could be argued that at least while a criminal is incarcerated they can not inflict harm on society. However, the public should really fear that the time in prisons is not well spent and that in the end a more malicious, skilled and antisocial criminal may be released.
Finally, if the purpose of prison is rehabilitation, then, at least from my experience, it's a dismal failure. The majority of men call prison 'home' because of their issues with mental health or drugs. But prison can not be considered treatment: there are more drugs in here than on the street, and your cellmate could very well be your drug dealer. Where do you think I tried heroin for the first time? We need more treatment services—mandatory, lock-up treatment even. To believe we have that now is to be misinformed.
I have begun to make the changes I promised my brother—and later promised myself—I would. I quit all drugs, am nearly completely weaned off methadone, have stopped smoking, am working on completing my GED (General Educational Development) secondary school equivalency certificate, and have repaired many of the relationships I took for granted while I was using.
I am going to make it because I have given myself many reasons to stay clean. For the first time since I was four years old, I am happy that I'm alive. Today, I live my life for me and my brother—there must be some reason for his death. But for the rest of the men I live among, the story is one I have known—one of being very alone even while you live with hundreds of other people. There is only one sure thing that an inmate does in prison. Time.
About the author
Curtis is a childhood abuse survivor, mental health consumer and recovering drug user. Catalyzed to change by the death of his brother, Curtis is now a junkie for 'clean' time. He looks forward to release from prison and rebuilding family relationships. For the first time he is happy to be alive.
- Smoking is how many kids today become addicted to heroin. Smoking has less of a stigma than shooting does, but it's no less deadly when smoked.