My Name Is Victor, and I'm a Jailbird
Victor was arrested this past February for buying twelve dollars' worth of crack cocaine from undercover Miami police officers. It was his second arrest in three months for the same crime. He was taken to jail -- the Metro-West Detention Center -- and because he'd violated the conditions of his earlier pretrial release, bail was denied. He wasn't scheduled to go to trial until May, so there he sat, facing hard time for four rocks. In light of those bleak prospects, Victor also began to face up to the reality of his drug problem and an accompanying alcoholism.
After struggling with addictions for half of his 40 years, Victor figured now was the time to get clean for good. As a veteran of past treatment programs, he knew the only way he stood a chance of succeeding was to hook up with a support network. He wondered if there were any Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings he could attend while cooling his heels in jail. He couldn't find anyone who knew of such programs at Metro-West. When he told a friend on the outside about his interest in attending meetings, she began a series of inquiries to several officials at Metro-West and the Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department. After two weeks of phone calls, she learned that both AA and NA did hold meetings at Metro-West, supposedly once or twice a week, but that not many inmates showed up. Anyone interested in attending, Victor subsequently was informed, had to sign up in advance and undergo a security screening.
So he signed up and was approved, and so far has participated in two AA meetings and two NA meetings. "I would never have known the meetings existed," Victor says, "if I hadn't had someone making all those calls. No one in my [64-inmate] unit knew, even guys who've been here for eight months. And they have an incentive to go to the meetings because it probably would help them when they went to court. For me it's a matter of survival."
But as a rule, Victor adds, corrections officers don't make it easy, either owing to apathy, hostility, or a desire to avoid the paperwork required for virtually every move made by an inmate. Victor doesn't want his real name published because "I can't afford to get anyone around here mad at me." He insists many corrections officers don't take kindly to an inmate disrupting the routine. "They'll move you somewhere else, or they'll find other ways to punish you, so I've gotta keep quiet," he explains. "But I sign up for every meeting, and that way there's less chance they'll forget -- or neglect -- to call me."
There are twenty federal, state, and county correctional facilities in Miami-Dade County. The inmate population among the county's institutions hovers around 6700. National law-enforcement and justice-system officials estimate drug and/or alcohol abuse contributed directly to at least 80 percent of the crimes for which the United State's 1.8 million prisoners are locked up. Those familiar with the justice system believe the figure is closer to 90 or 95 percent. The twelve-step programs practiced by AA and NA, though their success depends entirely on individual will, are unquestionably essential for lasting recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. (AA literature states that 50,000 prison inmates in the United States are members of the organization; since 1942, when the first prison AA meeting was held, the organization claims recidivism among regular participants dropped from 80 to 20 percent.) Still, the presence of such programs at Miami-Dade's correctional centers, where they're arguably most needed, is negligible.
There are dozens of reasons for the dearth. Statistics from Broward County compiled by AA, however, suggest Miami-Dade's jails and prisons could be much more twelve-step-friendly. Broward has half as many correctional institutions (ten) as Miami-Dade but hosts more than three times as many AA meetings per week -- fifteen per week in Dade, fifty-three in Broward. (NA does not keep comparable statistics.) The Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO) actually employs a "volunteer coordinator" who clears AA and NA members to hold meetings at the four BSO facilities, assigns volunteers to the individual facilities, and schedules the meetings and programs. (BSO doesn't get involved with state or federal facilities in Broward.) That is not how such activities have been handled in Miami-Dade. Each of the seven correctional facilities operated by the county has its own liaison for rehabilitative services. According to Sheila Siddiqui, interim assistant director for planning and program services for the corrections department, inmates are informed during orientation of the voluntary programs available to them, including AA and NA meetings and GED and vocational classes.
But somehow the information isn't getting through to all the right people, as in Victor's case. Many inmates, expecting a speedy release, probably don't pay much attention when first incarcerated. But it shouldn't be difficult to get answers after three or four weeks in jail. For AA volunteers the lack of a coordinating authority over all county facilities makes their access irregular and often problematic. For example instead of going through a single certification for all seven county jails, volunteers must be separately approved by each institution. "What I kind of learned over the years is the jails and prisons [in Miami-Dade] are pretty much autonomous," advises Brian, chairman of the local AA committee that sends volunteers to conduct meetings at correctional facilities. (AA's tradition of anonymity allows members to use only their first names.) "I'll call up [an institution] and say, I'm a member of AA, and I'm interested in helping to bring meetings into your facility,' and it's like nobody of any authority is telling them to start meetings or do anything, so they're like, Ah, well, okay.' What happens sometimes is they'll start having meetings, then they'll discourage us from coming, and the meetings will end up stopping." Other institutions, such as the South Florida Reception Center (a state prison), "has always had [AA] literature on hand, and we don't really have any problems there," Brian says. In contrast, among AA volunteers anyway, Miami-Dade County's Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center is considered unorganized and unreceptive.
Lois Spears, director of Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation, refused to discuss her department's policies regarding volunteer recovery programs such as AA and NA.
Brian and the other AA members who regularly visit jails and prisons refuse to criticize corrections officials at any facility, however, and are quick to list legitimate reasons why any given meeting might be cancelled or delayed: The facility could be conducting a head check or random drug search; an inmate who signed up for a meeting could be under disciplinary action; some inmates could be determined to be security risks. But there have also been cases of lost paperwork or miscommunication resulting in no one knowing an AA or NA meeting was even scheduled. "About twenty percent of the time we show up for a meeting, we get turned away," says Fred, an AA member and ex-con who is one of the most active group leaders in local jails and prisons.
"I think we could be more user-friendly as far as the volunteers -- trying to treat them properly when they come in, don't make them wait two hours if they do come in," acknowledges Joel Botner, director of inmate programming at Metro-West, which AA volunteers say actually is more accommodating than other local jails. "I think we could also get the word out [about meetings] better to the inmate population."
Beyond the apparently widespread problem of inmates not being informed of the existence of recovery meetings within their facility, prisoners themselves often are unreceptive. "If inmates don't really, really want a program, they're not going to go," says William Adams, a former corrections officer who currently finds jobs for ex-prisoners as part of his duties at the school district's Miami Skill Center and Lindsey Hopkins Technical School. Adams also has made presentations for NA at the county's Training and Treatment Center, commonly known as the Stockade. "Because they're abstinent -- for the most part -- in jail, they're under the illusion they're all right and don't have a drug problem anymore. But they come out after three or five years, and the first thing, they use drugs. It doesn't matter how long they've been abstinent."
Adds Skip, NA's regional coordinator of prison visits: "If the inmates contact us, we're more than happy to go, but we have to have a request. We can't advertise, and we have limited resources." Skip estimates NA conducts 90 to 100 meetings per week in Miami-Dade's drug-treatment centers and correctional facilities; about 70 percent of the meetings take place at treatment institutions.
Which may explain why some corrections officials say they simply don't see much of NA. "They'll come for two or three months, then just stop coming, and I can't reach them," says Metro-West's Botner.
Not many AA or NA members are willing to devote several hours a week to interacting with accused or convicted criminals, according to Brian, AA's local volunteer prison coordinator. "I have a hard time drumming up people to take meetings [into jails and prisons]," he remarks. "It's not the kind of thing AA members are clamoring to do. It takes a special personality to walk in there with doors slamming behind you, being in a room with some hardened criminals, many times lifers."
Despite all the obstacles, though, Broward has been more successful than Miami-Dade in overcoming them. AA conducts eighteen meetings per week just at the BSO's Joseph V. Conte center, which houses more than 1000 nonviolent offenders with drug and alcohol problems. In Miami-Dade it's almost unheard of for any facility to see more than one AA meeting per week.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.