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“It won’t allow you to come out the way you came in. It’s impossible.”
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Inmate Corey Dixon presents a chart of his relationships and their influence on his upbringing.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Mike Hatcher (right) listens during an Alpha Project meeting at the Roanoke County-Salem Jail in Salem on Wednesday.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
The Alpha Project group meets at the Roanoke County-Salem Jail in Salem on Wednesday.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Tom Mazza listens to a presentation by a fellow inmate during an Alpha Project meeting at the Roanoke County-Salem Jail in Salem.
Friday, December 13, 2013
Right in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon last month, Mike Hatcher — 38, the father of six children, and still very much alive — stood before a group of about a dozen other men and read his own obituary aloud.
Hatcher, like those in his audience, wore pine-green jail coveralls and sneakers that resemble blaze-orange Chuck Taylors but with velcro straps instead of laces.
This was in the Roanoke County-Salem Jail, in a special pod dedicated to inmates participating in the Alpha project, a drug and alcohol treatment program that’s been active in the valley for the past two decades.
Hatcher still has cases to be heard in Salem Circuit Court — possession of Lortab, morphine and methamphetamine — but if he completes Alpha, he might be able to get out from under a potential 40-year sentence. And maybe change his life, which for the longest time has been steered one way or another by drugs. A crucifix tattooed on his arm commemorates his mother, Dottie Mae, who he said died when he was 8 years old, while she was running back into a house fire to retrieve narcotics and drug money.
“Good afternoon, family. My name is Mike,” he told the group, then presented his exercises for the day, two autobiographical death notices — one written as if he’d died before he began recovery, the other a speculative obituary set 10 years in the future.
The first was short, a list of basic details that sketched only the briefest of portraits.
But in Hatcher’s second obit, he died clean, a decade older. In that epilogue, he’d become a pastor, was earning his pilot’s license, and his young daughter had grown up to successfully follow her dream of working in neonatal care.
As he recited his speculative summary of the life he wanted to have, he spoke of squandered time.
“It’s hard to think I’ve wasted this much of my life,” he said to the other inmates. “If I could say something that would stop one of you guys, I would.”
The group’s counselor, Jeff Letchford, took up his lead.
“That should tell you there’s hope,” Letchford told them. “That’s the point of this exercise. Life’s not over.
“You could still have 10, 20, 30 more years to go,” he reminded the inmates, many of whom are still just in their 20s.
Push-ups and pull-ups
Alpha, which is staffed by Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, was established through the Roanoke sheriff’s office, just for male offenders, in 1992; it began treating female inmates in 1996; and it combined with a similar program, Sapphire, in Roanoke County’s jail in 2007, but that facility serves only men.
Alpha’s residential inmates spend 120 days in the program while incarcerated, followed by another 36 weeks of outpatient treatment after they’re released.
Convicted offenders who complete it can often see reductions in their sentences, but space in the program is at a minimum — the Alpha units in Roanoke and Roanoke County’s jails can each take just 16 men at one time; Roanoke City’s female pod has a capacity of 14.
Offenders who are court-ordered into the program get priority, while those with a history of violence, or are serving sentences of 5 years or more, can be denied entry. About 147 people were admitted to Alpha last year across Roanoke and Roanoke County, and approximately 75 inmates across Roanoke and Roanoke County are on the current waiting list.
Most in Alpha have serious problems with hard drugs (methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine) but have generally been convicted on smaller offenses, such as theft, breaking and entering, shoplifting, credit card fraud.
“The clients haven’t changed that much. The substances have. Across the board, we have all types of substance abuse,” said Earl Edwards, who has 35 years’ experience in behavior health care and has been with Alpha Jail Services since 2001.
“They run the gamut of age, 18 to 65,” he said.
The inmates share the same two-level, multi-cell pod and must refer to their group as their “Alpha family.”
During daily pod meetings, members are required to introduce themselves in a specific way before speaking, and each introduction requires acknowledgement. With its call-and-response cadences and slang terms, the sessions sometimes sound more like boot camp than substance abuse therapy.
The program has four pillars — accountability, responsibility, consistency and honesty — and its structure is built on contract work.
During their four months inside, each inmate must make between 14 and 16 presentations, like the two obituaries, or a break-up letter written to a drug-of-choice, and the family then votes on whether or not a presentation was successful.
Each inmate must also give out a requisite number of bookings each day, called “pull-ups,” to make their pod mates aware of negative behaviors. Positive acknowledgements are called “push-ups.”
“A big part of Alpha is holding people accountable for their own behavior,” Edwards said. “It’s a difficult program.”
Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Charlie Dorsey, who also presides over the 23rd Judicial Circuit’s drug court, said that although Alpha can lessen a sentence it shouldn’t be mistaken for a “hug-a-thug” effort.
“I don’t think any of us have ever thought of Alpha as a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he said. “I’ve had more than a handful of people who come back and say, ‘I can’t do it. It’s too tough. They’re too confrontational.’ ”
He sees it as a worthwhile balance.
“Let’s face it. There are some people who play the system. But there are other people who have not gotten substance abuse treatment and need it.
“You can’t force people to help themselves if they don’t want to,” Dorsey added. “Hopefully it’ll be of assistance to you, and if you’re back in front of me again, you won’t be saying you’ve never gotten drug treatment.”
‘The boy I thought I’d killed’
“I’ve been in and out of prison for 20 years, and I ain’t never had no help,” said 41-year-old David Mullins.
Mullins is a big, burly guy who under different circumstances, with his goatee and his reading glasses perched low, could just about pass for a well-worn English professor. But last fall he stole a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 from a grocery store and got caught, violating his probation on a grand larceny charge. Now he’s back in the Roanoke City Jail, but he’s getting help for his alcohol problem.
“This program has opened my eyes to a lot. The contract work that I’ve received here has made me find my inner self,” Mullins said during an Alpha meeting last month. “If I’d a had this 20 years ago, God only knows where I’d be with my life.”
Another Roanoke inmate, Jason Davis, 30, is a recovering heroin addict who is also illiterate. That’s just one more challenge in navigating an already tough program that also requires daily reading and writing.
Other members of his Alpha family take turns helping him with those tasks, but that filter still didn’t cushion the blow when — as part of another exercise — he received an intervention letter from his mother.
In her note, she described how drugs had completely changed her son. She recalled his bad behavior and reminded him that even after he got a heart infection from using dirty needles, he still didn’t quit drugs.
“Even though he can’t read or write, he’s still getting as much benefit as anybody else,” said Roanoke’s Alpha clinician Shane Etter, who spends up to 20 hours a week working with and counseling the inmates.
“Hell, he’s one of our hardest-working guys. He gives it everything he’s got,” Etter said of Davis.
In an ordinary pod, Alpha’s brand of confession-and-feedback approach simply would not work.
“You don’t show weakness in prison. It’s a welcome mat on your back for people to stomp you down,” said Roanoke inmate Robert Thomas. “You can believe I’m not gonna stand up in general population and tell my story.”
“But I’m freer now, behind bars, than I ever was before,” he added.
“We have a very strict confidentiality agreement,” Etter said, and the list of rules and regulations for the program is 20 pages long. “It’s explained to them clearly they cannot break the confidence of anyone. To me, breaking confidence is not any different than getting in a fight with someone. It all carries the same consequence.
“We make sure their trust is protected,” Etter said.
Darryn Wingfield, who turned 25 in Roanoke County’s Alpha program last month, bore that out.
“It’s safer. In gen pop, you got to watch your stuff,” Wingfield said. “You can trust people. That’s something you don’t get very often in jail.”
During his presentation last month in Roanoke’s jail, Shawn Crawley, 34, hailed the effectiveness of the contract work.
“It made me change back to the boy I thought I’d killed,” he said.
“It won’t allow you to come out the way you came in. It’s impossible,” he said.
“I had absolutely no intention of working with substance abusers when I was in college,” Jeff Letchford, Roanoke County’s Alpha clinician, said recently.
This month, however, marks his first full year of providing treatment within Alpha.
The 43-year-old Marine Corps veteran and former cryptological linguist, who holds a black belt in aikido, had originally planned to help treat victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. But a Virginia Western Community College internship with Alpha sent him a different way.
“I figured out early, if I want to work with trauma, there’s no better group to work with than addicts,” Letchford said. “Trauma is very strongly correlated with drug use.”
Nationwide, those who score 4 or higher on a 10-point ACE Study (Adverse Childhood Experience) are 46 percent more likely to be an IV drug user, he said, and 60 percent of people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are likely to have an alcohol dependency.
Letchford said the average addict enters some form of rehab at least seven times. This leads him to what is the most difficult aspect of his work.
“I have to let go of the idea I’m going to have 100 percent success. I’m a little bit of a control freak, but I have to understand I can’t control somebody else’s recovery,” he said.
“So many relapse that the frustration level would be too great if I didn’t think I was planting some seed.”
“It’s the little breakthroughs,” he said later. “It’s not the huge changes, it’s the little ones that add up. You’ve got guys come in that are oak trees that grow a little bit, a little bit at a time.
“The oak takes a lot longer to grow, but it is a very strong wood. It’s those guys that grow slow but steady that tend to get it better.”
‘It was like the devil
wanted me to drink’
Although Alpha might in some ways change those who take part, it can’t guarantee to cure them of their addictions.
One principle of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous — which Alpha requires participants to attend during their outpatient phase — is that addicts are always in recovery, right up until the day they die.
While their circumstances might slow down while they’re in custody, their outside lives keep going. Sons and daughters don’t stop growing. Bad blood doesn’t always cool. Bills and debts don’t shrink, they grow. These and other issues, they said, make recovery difficult.
Edwards estimated 85 percent of those who enter Alpha in both Roanoke and Roanoke County successfully complete it, but sometimes they come back.
In September, a previous graduate, who asked not to be identified by name, violated his post-release sobriety requirements and had to return to serve a 30-day stint.
On the man’s last day, his group gathered in a small room of the county jail for his second graduation ceremony. A row of four narrow windows with a single bar down their centers let late-summer light in. Next door, the muted whine of power tools from a construction project droned on and on.
“It scared me when you came back,” another inmate, Brandon Scharnus, told him.
“I guess it’s kind of a good thing. I realize I gotta be careful, too,” said Scharnus, who at the time was just 47 days into his four-month stay.
“I hate seeing you here. I hate being here with you. I hate everything about this,” Fahmee Rabb, 32, told the graduate, more out of regret than anger.
“I’m looking forward to seeing each other outside of these green suits,” he added.
Rabb, who has a string of alcohol-related arrests dating back to 2006, claims to hold a Roanoke County record for insobriety. In 2008, he said, he was given a breathalyzer test and blew 0.523 percent — six-and-a-half times the legal limit.
But he did his time, graduated from Alpha, and from early 2011 until May, 2013, he was able to stay sober.
“I was getting ready to celebrate my year-and-a-half,” Rabb recalled, but said that about that time a close friend of his died, then another friend who lived outside the county offered him an isolated place where he could imbibe, free from hassle.
“It was like the devil wanted me to drink,” he recalled.
A probation officer later caught him drunk, however, and Rabb was soon back in jail.
“The four months instills you with so much confidence, you think you’re strong enough to hang around people, places and things,” he said. “I just need a group of people who’ve been though the same thing like me.”
Rabb is now set to be released Dec. 19. A Jehovah’s witness and the father of a young son, he said he has priorities that extend beyond the holidays.
“I’m just hoping to get out before it snows,” he said. “I’ve got a little 4-year-old. He’s anxious for the snow this year.”
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