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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 27, 2009

Out of the frying pan, into our lives: Treat rather than punish addicts,
then train them for jobs so they serve rather than burden society

Illustration by Forest Byrd

The United States is first in something none of us should be proud of. We have more people in prison than any country in the world.

A quarter of a century ago, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics supported by the United States Department of Justice, there were half-a-million Americans in prison; today, more than two million are behind bars. And the cost has increased in that time from less than $7 billion to more than $50 billion.

Nine years ago, New York State was in the forefront of a grand experiment that has since been replicated successfully in other states. In the summer of 2000, New York adopted a drug court program to treat rather than punish drug addicts, diverting thousands of drug-addicted criminals each year from prisons to intensive rehabilitation programs. In the first year alone, it is estimated that half-a-billion dollars was saved.

The program also saves by reducing court time because addicts who choose to enter the rehabilitation program must first plead guilty to their charges.

The cost in human savings is perhaps immeasurable.

Addicts who receive treatment are three times less likely to re-offend. At the start of the drug court program, it was found that 12 percent of addicts who went through the program re-offended as opposed to 35 percent who served jail time.

Father Peter Young was ahead of the state, setting up an Honor Court program 26 years ago, offering non-violent offenders who committed alcohol- or drug-related crimes a chance to go to drug treatment centers instead of jail.

But he was ahead in another important way, too. When addicts emerge from such programs or when convicts serve their time, they often end up back on drugs or back in jail because they lack the skills to fit into society or to hold a job.

Young has programs for that as well. Beyond treatment, he says, addicts need housing and employment to recover. His resounding call is to create taxpayers. We take this to mean functioning members of society, citizens who contribute.

A staggering number of inmates report using alcohol or drugs. Again according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds drank alcohol regularly and over one-third were drinking at the time of the crime. Sixty-nine percent of all inmates reported using drugs, including marijuana, regularly with 29 percent of convicted inmates using drugs at the time of the crime.

Father Young is no stranger to alcohol and drug addiction. His name is familiar in Altamont because of the rehab center he runs in the old seminary perched above the village, now serving veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young began his work in Albany’s South End in the 1950s and now heads a $20 million organization in New York with 90 residential sites, in-patient treatment centers, halfway houses, and contracts with agencies and companies to hire the people he is training.

It’s easy for those of us who haven’t been addicted to look at those who have as someone else’s problem.

Our reporter Philippa Stasiuk stripped away that conceit last week when she presented portraits of some of the people being helped by Young’s Glidepath program.

She visited the Schuyler Inn, a worn hotel in Menands that has seen better days. There she met David Hussey, a boyish 25-year-old sporting a bowtie and crisp white dress shirt. He told her he was born in the back of a bus to a mother high on LSD. His parents were deadheads, following the Grateful Dead as the band played concerts across the country. His father transported LSD, and his mother injected him with drugs to keep him from fussing.

What saved Hussey from a life of addiction, he said, was Honor Court — instead of being sentenced to jail for drunk driving, he was treated at Altamont House. Now he’s the banquet manager at the Schuyler Inn and wants to give back to Father Young. “He got me clean after 20 years of use and now I have a future,” said Hussey.

Young harnesses that sort of response in what he calls the “philosophy of the wounded healer.”  Some of the people who have been rehabilitated stay on and work to help others.

The director for the culinary school at the Schuyler Inn, Peter Kelsey, explained that the name Glidepath comes from Young’s Navy experience, where flagmen brought planes down to a level field on a ship.

“We don’t give mandates, but instead try to give leadership and guidance so the pilot can land,” said Kelsey. “It’s a step-down process from intensive treatment and we’re the flagmen.”

One of those who embody the philosophy of the wounded healer is Sylvester Floyd, sous chef at the Schuyler Inn. We pictured him on our front page last week, stirring a large pot of soup. After Floyd got out of prison 14 years ago, he graduated from one of Father Young’s programs; then he worked his way up and now cooks meals and helps with classes.

“Sly is the connection between recovery and the culinary program,” said the head chef at the Schuyler Inn. “He shows that this is not a waste of time. It can change your life around.”

Programs like Young’s break a vicious cycle. Often addicts and offenders have, like Hussey, come from unstable family backgrounds. They have no model for fitting into society. When they get out of prison or rehab, they frequently have no skills to get a job and no hope for their future.

The numbers bear this out. In 1997, a State University of New York School of Criminal Justice study found that people who went through the Father Young programs returned to prisons or violated their paroles only 8 percent of the time compared to 80 percent for those without such programs.

Stasiuk came back from her visit to the run-down Menands hotel, though, with more than a fistful of statistics and a camera full of pictures. “There was such hope,” she said. “Such hope.”

“‘Hope,’” wrote the 19th-Century poet Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tune without the words — And never stops — at all —”

But it has stopped for people who have no place to live, no family to go to, no means of getting a job. They fall back to their old habits, and we’re all the poorer for it.

Programs like Father Young’s give people a job, a ticket to society, but also a sense of purpose and belonging. That’s important for all of us — not just because they’ll pay taxes and won’t cost us as much in prison fees. We need to support such programs because, quite simply, they make our society better and our future richer.

If we spent more money on programs that helped recovering addicts and alcoholics become productive citizens we wouldn’t have to spend money to build more prisons. Wouldn’t it be great to be first in rehab rather than first in incarceration?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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