TRCI Inmates Turn to Alcoholics Anonymous

Free on the inside, an inmate gets a sobriety coin.

October 4, 2011

Jennifer Colton

Moments after the announcement faded from the speaker, a door opened.

One man shuffled in silently, head down and a shy smile; another entered with a nod, a book clutched tightly in hand. Seconds passed, the door opened again and another man entered the room; another followed quickly and greeted everyone in the room with high-fives and handshakes.

Their personalities and appearances varied, but each bore a level of anonymity through his uniform: blue jeans, tan belt, button-down denim shirt or dark blue tee, each stamped with the neon-orange logo of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Past skin colors and tattoos, shaved heads or dreadlocks, young or old, each man is the same, an inmate — and each also has something else in common.

“My name is Tommy, and I am an alcoholic.”

Gathered in a circle, the 11 men are part of “Free on the Inside,” one of two weekly Alcoholics Anonymous groups at Two Rivers Correctional Institution. Together with a team of three volunteers, they meet once a week to help each other overcome their addictions.

“If we can just save one, that’s all it takes,” said Michael, the inmate with the copy of his AA book in hand. “That’s what the American story is really all about, changing your life and making your family proud.”

AA is a worldwide fellowship of men and women who help each other to stay sober, offering help to anyone who has a drinking problem and wants to do something about it. Since they are all alcoholics themselves, they share a special understanding. They know what the illness feels like — and they have learned how to deal with it in AA.

“The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking,” Brian, a volunteer, said. “Unlike a lot of organizations, the most important person in the room is the newcomer — the guy coming in for his first meeting.”

Started in 1935 by a New York stockbroker and an Ohio surgeon who had both become “hopeless drunks,” Alcoholics Anonymous follows 12 steps — from admitting to being powerless over alcohol to having a spiritual awakening — and 12 traditions, including the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Although AA does not keep a list of members, the organization estimates total membership at more than 2 million.

“There are no dues, you don’t have to admit you’re an alcoholic, you don’t have to believe in someone else’s concept of God,” Brian said. “You’ll eventually bump into the steps on that, but we’re not going to force you to believe in God.”

Instead, the group encourages members to believe in a power greater than the individual, whether that means a higher power or simply the group of sober people in AA. The true power of AA, Brian said, is the ability of the group to help each other succeed. When alcoholics leave the program and stop reaching out, they often relapse and turn to alcohol.

“I’ve been in and out of recovery several times,” Bryan, an inmate, said during the meeting. “I let my life fall apart this time, I stopped reaching out, stopped working the steps, I stopped caring about Bryan. I thought the only person I was hurting was myself, but I wasn’t. I’ll never see my parents again. They’re not in good health, and they can’t travel to visit. By the time I get out, they’ll be gone. I can be surrounded by 7,500 men and still feel lonely.”

Bridging the gap

In the sea of denim, the volunteers’ colored shirts and khaki pants stand out, but once they leave the prison campus, they blend back into society, back into anonymity, to cope with a disease on the outside.

Brian has volunteered with the AA group at TRCI for two years this month. His fellow volunteers, Dave and Gary, have been with the program a little more than two years, and each is a member of AA.

AA members say they are alcoholics, even when they have not had a drink for many years. According to AA beliefs, people cannot become “former alcoholics” but rather become “recovered alcoholics.”

Although each of the volunteers has struggled with alcoholism in the past, the program has helped them overcome it.

“We can do all sorts of things people say alcoholics can’t do,” Dave said. “I have a six pack of beer, wine in the fridge for when my in-laws come by. It doesn’t bother me. I have no desire to drink.”

Alcoholics Anonymous treats alcoholism as an illness. Because AA members know what the illness feels like, they can help other understand how to recover, even through relapses and constant temptation. Gary has 34 years of sobriety; Dave has been sober nine years; Brian had his last relapse in 2005 and joined AA in January 2006.

“That word can mean so many different things,” Brian said. “I knew in my mind that an alcoholic was someone who shouldn’t drink alcohol. I didn’t want to call myself an alcoholic because of what it meant, but the overwhelming feature of alcoholism is the inabilty to stop drinking by themselves. They’ll continue to do it, even after all the negatives, because that feeling is so dear to them.”

Groups meet regularly at seven locations in Umatilla County alone. At the AA Fellowship Hall in Hermiston, 680 Harper Road, groups meet twice a day, 365 days a year.

“Holidays are tough for some people, so those days are even more important,” Brian said. “Inside the institution or outside, AA is important because alcoholics cannot stop drinking by themselves. They have to be in a group to help them overcome the alcohol. They need the support of a social group. A lot of alcoholics don’t socialze well. They tend to be isolated, and alcoholism thrives in isolation. When an alcoholic stops socializing, that’s when you have to worry.”

At TRCI, the inmates also face the challenge of not being able to socialize with group members outside of the meetings. The volunteers said that isolation makes the meetings even more important and stressed they do not lead the group.

“They run it, we just participate in it,” Dave said. “We’re not leaders, we’re equals.”

Although the three men give up control of the meetings, their presence plays an important role in keeping AA at TRCI because the institution requires at least one volunteer on hand to facilitate the meetings. With three dedicated participants, TRCI offers two AA groups for inmates in the main facility. With more help, they could facilitate a group in TRCI’s minimum-security facility.

“It’s not something that everybody in AA feels comfortable doing,” Brian said. “If I didn’t think it would make a difference in their lives, I wouldn’t go out there for five seconds, but it does. I know it made a difference to me.”

One day at a time

In the classroom, each member, inmate and volunteer gives 100 percent of his attention to each speaker. In the near silence, words echo off the concrete walls, and the ticking of the lock, the turning of a page, is loud. They encourage each other, talk about faith and temptation. They share stories of their lives, families, mistakes.

Bryan had his first experience with AA five days after he bailed himself out of jail. For six weeks, he attended every meeting, the first person to arrive and the last to leave, and AA helped him stay sober until he returned to court.

“I told them I’d see them next Wednesday, but I never made it back,” he said. “There’s not a lot to do in the place, and every Thursday at 7:30 I get excited to come down here because everyone is so real, and they understand they can’t do it on their own. I’ll stay with you guys every week until I get out. Then I’ll go back to that group at the Foursquare Church. I’ll never leave AA.”

For one member, Yatta, the evening marked a special occasion.

“Today, I turn a half a century, my boy turns 24, and I celebrate my 13th (sober) birthday,” he said. “With a clear mind, you can see things differently. I’ve done a lot of reflection today.”

The group members celebrate both physical birthdays and the anniversary of their sobriety. Yatta, who began attending AA meetings in the early 1990s, received a 13-year coin during that meeting, a memento he can carry with him, in prison and out, to remember his years of sobriety and his commitment to AA.

“I take it one day at a time,” he said. “It’s a cliche, but once you really understand it, it works.”

Conversation continued, and on his turn to speak, another inmate, Steven, told the group he also has a physical birthday coming soon.

“At first I was excited. I made it to 22, and I used to think I wouldn’t make it to 16,” he said. “I only have a year until I get out, but I feel safer in here. I think about geting out, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I could get right back into what I was before. I could get shot again. I know I’m not who I was, and it’s because of you guys, because of this group.”

Yatta offered Steven words of encouragement.

“You’ll make it. You just keep faith and go one day at a time,” he said. “No matter what, don’t give up. I got a good chance next year I’m going home after 24 years. I’m proof that it works. Take it one day at a time.”

© The Hermiston Herald

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