Addiction is a disease.
This is the truth - an uncomfortable one, but the truth nonetheless.
I go to the Verde Valley jail every other week with Northern Arizona Restorative Justice (NARJ) to teach restorative practices to incarcerated men and women. I have again and again borne witness to the injustice of sentencing addicts to years of confinement. These are amazing people, who have lost their best to a disease, and who are in need of help. Addicts’ disease can sometimes place them in conflict with the law and general society. Incarceration is not an effective treatment for their malady. Sentencing addicted men and women to prison is like locking up everyone with cancer, PTSD, or hypertension.
Decades of medical research and practice have verified that addiction is a disease. The medical community is getting much better at treating addiction than they have been historically. They now see the symptoms and can distinguish them from addiction’s root causes, which include factors like trauma, complex psychiatric diagnoses, neurodiversity, neurochemical imbalances, genetic predisposition and chemical toxicity. The medical community also acknowledges attempts by the suffering addicts to self-medicate. They understand that only a disease - not a chosen way of life - would cause a mother to abandon a child or push people to destroy themselves. Addictions’ complexities, while not fully understood, affect the psychological, physiological, psychosocial and spiritual aspects of life.
A useful way to think about addiction, is that in the face of the physical, psychological and emotional challenges listed above, an addict experiences an erosion of genuine, positive, human connection (not always and not necessarily). They experience a moral breakdown in familial and social connectedness and struggle alone with their fear, trauma and anxiety.
Addiction, no matter what its cause and no matter what substances the addict uses, ruptures relationships, in the family first, and then more broadly.
Healing for an addict is impossible without healing those broken relationships and families.
It takes more than prison, more than our current treatment options, and more than campaigns against drugs and alcohol. Substances aren’t the problem. The problem is broken families, and moral and economic poverty.
Recovery work requires that addicts pay attention to their patterns of thought and behavior. Those Unhealthy patterns have their roots in having been learned by watching and participating in others ’unhealthy patterns, by trying to come to terms with trauma, mental illness, dysfunctional environments and other factors. Addiction is treated best by creating new and healthy connections, replacing those habitual and often unconscious patterns. But before a person can get there, The road to health can be long and require much effort on the part of the addict, their families, and the people who work alongside them.
A one-month treatment program is not going to heal years of abuse. Some people take years to heal, and some never fully heal. Society and addicts’ families’ patience can often wear thin with people who appear to be knowingly destroying themselves.
Our society is filled with fear and anxiety. The reasons for this are many. We lack trust, we over-think, we compare ourselves to others, over-categorize and judge.
The news shows daily stories of addicts being arrested for doing unthinkable acts. As a result, we have learned to fear this disease.
Fueled by fear and hyper-awareness of danger, many people in America are medicating for anxiety, and becoming unintentional addicts. The illicit and pharmaceutical drug industry are rich even in times of poverty.
While addicts do things that are hurtful to themselves and others, science shows that these men, women and kids are literally not in their right minds. Addiction rewires the brain in ways that cause addicts to see the world, and react to what they see, in ways that are at the very least unhealthy, sometimes deviant, and supremely wrong. Fortunately for all of us - for who hasn’t been affected by addiction in some way? - research and therapeutic practices show that the addicted brain can be rewired. Recovery requires that treatment occur in a place where fear can be turned into the opportunity to create love and peace.
The greatest contributor of addiction, and the fuel to millions of incarcerated individuals, is poverty. It is a poverty of moral structure and money. Poverty caused by a moral wound. It is often a broken relationship that leads to addiction. Moral poverty breeds broken connections. Broken connections create harm.
What is the value of healing a broken person, and a broken family?
We all know amazing people who have died from the disease of addiction.
What if we can save future lives from being lost in this way?
Restorative justice approaches addiction as healing broken relationships. We seek to encourage people who have caused harm to themselves and others, to take responsibility and repair the harm. Healing addiction requires repairing harm. This is a tremendous act of courage as true humility requires an addict to ask for help.
Asking for help is what the most successful people do. It is what happy and financially secure people do. It is a requirement for healthy relationships. Stable communities are those that decide to respond to the requests for help from those struggling with addiction. We need to be willing to offer support to those who have become aware of the damage their addictions are causing and know they cannot recover alone.
Helping those who need help is a community responsibility. We can't hope that someone else is going to do the difficult work of healing moral wounds of incredible trauma.
The addicts I have met in jail are a brilliant group of people, with tremendous potential to give back to society, if a restorative environment is created. They cannot, however, heal in the correctional system. The only way to restore them to our community is to get the community involved. After all, justice doesn't just happen. It is created.
The rights of many addicts are being completely stripped away.
Most people in our county jails are unable to afford bail. This is a violation of the 8th amendment.
These people cannot seek justice from jail. Some can hardly read or write. They have no defense and no way to restore themselves without being given support. They need to be back in the community, or in treatment, able to begin the process of healing the harm caused in their diseased state.
Ninety-seven per cent of those charged with a crime accept plea agreements because they are told if they don’t plead guilty, they will be given a harsher sentence. The public defender's office is overwhelmed with cases, and can't send their lawyers to visit every man or woman they are in public service to protect. They are drowning in a sea of addicts with no plan besides giving out more jail time or building more prisons.
This will never heal the brokenness.
Addicts need access to treatment centers. Arizona has huge amounts of land and vast amounts of financial resources to create an oasis of healing.
Let's say, conservatively, that 50% of the prison population are addicts in need of treatment. What if we diverted their wasted talents, sitting in a cage, into the talent needed to build this network of treatment centers. What if they were healed and trained? What if these men and women helped build this treatment network? Wouldn't that help repair the harm they have caused?
Real solutions exist with proper funding.
The budget for prisons in Arizona for 2019 is $1,175,219,700.
If only 50% of these funds were put towards rehabilitating addicts, $587,609,850 would go a long way towards creating thousands of restored addicts, felons and families.
The financial savings in terms of funds currently spent on welfare, on Medicaid, on our foster systems, our juvenile systems, and our prisons would be huge. More importantly, the addition of healthy, contributing citizens who know there are healthy ways to conquer fear and loneliness, would be incalculable.
I urge the communities of Arizona to recognize that our state demands better justice.
If our community adopts restorative practices with adults the way we have with our youth, we could see a 70% recidivism rate, turned into an 88% success rate.*
Restorative practices teach people how to repair harm, and how to forgive each other. Forgiveness will always bring grace and dignity to the human spirit. With it, we can heal the broken heart.
*NARJ has seen only 12% re-offense in our juvenile program conducted in partnership with Yavapai County Juvenile Courts. 88% of those who participate in restorative circles have not re-offended.