A Drug Court by any Other Name is a Place Where Love Begins

Unique probation court in Portland pushes offenders to pull it together via tough love, a harbor of hope

It’s an old saw that is worthless in an informed, compassionate, smart, humanistic, science-backed, social justice, systems thinking sort of world – “People are doing drugs cuz they wake up one morning and say, ‘Man, I want to screw up my life, take years off my physiology, wreck families, put my future in the hands of money changers, and virtually become a shell of myself, a zombie.’”

But that’s the prevailing wind in Trump-Fourth-Reich or Clinton-Three-Strikes-&-You’re-Out Land. For millions of people in some form or shape tied to criminal justice, the courts, treatment, incarceration, and the public in general, people doing crime and doing it to feed an addiction are “less than human, less than citizen, less than honorable” for the good deeds and hurdles they have overcome, even those fought and won through addiction.

This is serious stuff, the continuation of cuts to social services, cuts to education, evisceration of public spaces, the systems of exploitation in the renter-Capitalist class whereby people working two or three jobs at $12 an hour (now that’s up here, in the PNW, but away from Portland or Seattle, say, down Dixie South . . . we are talking $7.75 an hour) end up paying more than 50 percent of their wages for a roof over their heads.

Serious, depressing, mind-blowing, soul-sapping, addiction-causing, relapse-inducing, suicide- perseverating major crap. The corridors of poverty, and the cages of families trapped in abuse, use, violence, mental illness, developmental disabilities, all of it, take a child down, deep down, under belly down into hell.

Listen to the experts – people who grew up in poverty, who saw mothers use and fathers abuse, who lived in neighborhoods with a quick stop store, gun shop and liquor emporium on every corner. Highways and busy thoroughfares cutting into any sense of calm. Smoke stacks and pollution. Air traffic overhead. Black pools of toxins. The constant gerrymandering of humanity and class into bigger and bigger corridors of poverty, bad schools, tattered amenities and TV flat screens in every home, hallelujah, underclass, inter-generational, forever infinite.

“Look, you know poverty better than me, I am sure, having traveled and lived in other countries more desperate than this one,” says one colleague, a social worker, next to me, having gone through detox, criminal courts, homelessness, drug use, displacement, violence, and the like to get to me as a colleague.

Poverty was bad in my hood in Southern California. Both parents not making it. Drinking just to wipe away the pain. In that place that is supposed to be so California Dreaming USA. What choices did I have as a child, no parents modeling for me, no outings, no real home education? I followed the streets, looked up to the leaders, gangs, thugs, the drug dealers. I ran the streets like a wild animal, and that is what I was: no curfew, no bed time, no set meal times, no homework, no checks and balances on my life around anything. I learned from older kids, learned from adults really, at age 10. Giving it all a shot – pot, speed, coke, booze, and anything else. Handling guns at 11, carrying at 12, pimp protecting at 13, and running big drugs at 14. No father intervening. Grandparents a million miles away. So, the streets were my crib and my schoolyard. Classroom. Drugs took me, and I still had legit jobs, big iron worker, union guy, lifting metal 20 stories up. But, using, and in that lifestyle. Imagine, at age 30 and I was still arrested developed – thinking like a 13 year old in a man’s body with a man’s temper and sense of the world.

So goes the story a million fold. Stories of family members raping boys and girls early on in that child development stage. Rape and exploitation and threats and prostitution. The integrity of a person’s self- worth and esteem and sense of the world torn like flesh from a baked animal.

You don’t end up rape-plowed and drug-induced and violence-taught and then seek some monk’s or nun’s sense of the world, justice, and reclamation. You end up running the streets, and getting addicted – the drug like a giant warm sun and toasty blanket in the middle of winter.

Words of addicts and family members attending the graduation of drug diversion court:

“I want to tell Johnny, I didn’t abandon him. Johnny, drugs took my little brother. I know it, brother. There wasn’t anything I could do at the time. Thirty years, and I am here to say, welcome back brother.”

“My father and mother are here, part of this graduation. I was taken away from them through drugs. I was lost, and, here I am, with them in the audience. Man, my first charge in the world was for robbing my parents. I am still ashamed, but they are here for me, now, and I am here for them, now.”

“I thought, hey, just do the time in jail, get out, do probation, and then, I could still use. I wanted to use so much, and it was the center of my world. But this program has shown people can love me and I can love myself. I have a child now, the center of my recovery, and my boyfriend, my family. Imagine, I thought I would use drugs forever, and now I am eighteen months clean.”

I am in the Multnomah County Building, Portland, Oregon, attending one of my client’s graduation from START Court – Success Through Accountability, Restitution, and Treatment (START). It’s a drug treatment court for adults convicted of property offenses and who have an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Probation and some hard-tough things – UA’s, Monday through Saturday, call-ins every day, mandatory recovery meetings and other counseling. A judge runs this court, and for the evening that was Eric Boch, judge since 2003. These graduates are there with families, friends, other supports, probation officers, and others, to support their clients graduating this drug court, one where participants attend substance abuse treatment, are supervised by an assigned probation officer, attend court regularly, and submit to random drug testing.

These men and women I know, their lives crisscrossed with their wants and desires. Some of these people were lost to drugs because of the wrong friends, because of family, but others got caught up in school meaninglessness, dropped out, and they took another pathway. Drug addiction, if you are rich, is a hell paved with broken relationships, disharmony, lost family members, fog, loneliness, disease of spirit. Add to the formula, a drug world, a life, set in poverty, and no connections, no well-to-do family to fall back on – poverty – and the life becomes a rush on the streets, homelessness, couch surfing, bravado, pimping, whoring, selling drugs and using drugs, dead-ends, running from the law, trapped by the law, prison, jail, probation, children lost, bad veins, lost teeth, broken bones, knifings, shootings, domestic violence, mental health degradation, more prison, treatment after treatment, relapse, aging, all teeth gone, hunched over bodies, lungs phlegm-filled after years of smoking. Relapse and recovery!

For some in Eric Bloch’s program, they are young, but my fellow, he’s my age, and he’s as sharp as a comic, has the P.O.’s and office staff impressed with his kindness and humor. This is a man who has been running the streets since 9th grade, so count that forty years on the mean streets. Rap sheets. Every DA and judge his shadow. This is not uncommon.

This man is amazing, call him Johnny, and his mother flew in with his brother from Idaho, and this friend and client of mine is working, saving up money, making $11 an hour, and loving it . . . a guy who had in the old days two or three thousand cash in his pockets at anytime. Running the streets. Bling and junk and cars.

Today, his life is nestled in a world of recovery, meetings, working with the homeless, working his steps and his program and running meetings and giving talks, and just staying the course in his goofy way, rough and tumble, but this man is serious about it this time.

I just have run out of steam. I can’t do this anymore. Things have changed in me, and this graduation from START shows me that I have loving people who care, my P.O.’s, the judge, the DA, others in other programs that got me here before I got here.

He tears up when his little brother says he lost his big brother to drugs, that there was nothing he could do to change his brother, or to convince him to turn it around. No mother could, no brother, no deaths in the family. Nothing was turning him around.

Johnny and I work on soft skills, working the employment game by talking about male roles, the male voice, his own life determined a lot by mostly female counselors, case managers, courts folk, P.O.’s, MD’s, psychologists, social workers. We talk about the trauma of the brain as child exposed to violence, exposed strife, to drugs, to anger, yelling, abandonment, and more.

Meth sold and used. The streets of Portland are his very veins, his very delineated life line of where he was, where he floundered, where he survived and where he collapsed into a state of giving up and trying something new and serious with his program, NA/AA, meetings, sponsors, re-entry programs, more and more!

Loving forward is one way to look at Johnny’s way – Evidence-based curricula he’s taken: Relapse prevention, Counterpoint, Matrix, MRT, Anger Management, DBT, Seeking Safety, conflict resolution. For instance, MRT-Moral Reconation Therapy – is all about rethinking what prison is, that prison isn’t the walls and bars but the person’s self-inflicted behavior. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an approach to mental health treatment that combines the techniques of standard cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with “elements from the behavioral sciences, dialectical philosophy, and Zen and Western contemplative practice.” Marsha M. Linehan created it in the 1970s to treat women with the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD). That BPD is one of the strongest components of people who use drugs, really, we can see why the spiral into addiction has its roots deep inside a man or woman — BPD distorts the individual’s self-perception and interferes with keeping stable relationships. Manipulative, dependent and dramatic are all characteristics of someone with BPD. But this behavior is a spiritual kneejerk for coping with overwhelming fear and emotional pain. In turn, all this pain, unstable emotions and hyper and impulsive behavior of a borderline personality disorder person puts them at great risk of drug or alcohol abuse.

Again, though, this is the old saw – “these people are doing it to themselves, can stop anytime, and are playing the system-gaming the system.” This is not something that is rare, even in these raging fourth-grader as leader times, to be sure. In that audience, hell, who knows how many of those family members bought into the deplorable Trump’s rhetoric and bashing, but these family members and friends are living witnesses to the power of early childhood traumas and experiences putting the loved one in a vortex of vicious condemnation, death sentence, unreasonable fits and furies, all because of some destructive childhood events.

No Trump, No Conservative, No Republican, No One who believes in this patriarchal spin on the world, who thinks we are all in a battle of Satan and freewheeling Free Will, can understand the power of drugs in a damaged person. They are not here, at the graduation at START Court. They are not in the NA and AA and HA meetings. They are not giving to the homeless and helping the recovery citizen. They are insulated by their prejudices, fears and ignorance.

So, then, the bombast in the news, the Tweets, in the daily erosion of intellect shown clearly on mainstream junk TV, on their Internet Junk Blogs, on the Facebook postings. Yes, this is diversion court, and these people are looked at hard by the case worker, judge, P.O. and mental health provider. And the convicted person is also part of this meeting to determine just how viable he or she is for the program.

Safety for the community, even safety for the drug addict, all of that is weighed. This is a dynamic approach to sentencing and remediation. Again, the old saw says, “do the crime and do the time.”

It’s an old story, how ineffective jail and prison are, how the entire punishment after time served is a human rights violation, and how a re-entry person is straddled with debt, fines, garnishments, meeting after meeting, even when the time for the crime was finished.

The long arm of retribution and deceit and recrimination and forcing prostrating and mea culpa and lifelong Scarlet Letter emblazoned on one’s life, that’s the reality shaping Johnny, as he courses through life, through his 60s and 70s, drawn and quartered by his own upbringing, the mean streets, the bad ass attitudes, the hard whippings of the culture, this white man, learning the chords of a choir of hope and love.

This judge praises his graduates, each one having a place in his heart. The hard judge lifting his words, poet’s words, and gives the audience the floor for testimonials, tributes, catharses.

This ain’t no Clinton or Obama or Trump or Bush or Reagan or Kennedy or Nixon or Truman or any of those false prophets of democracy place – not in their histories, not in their hearts and not in their mental spaces.

Here, Judge Eric Bloch’s invocation early in the two-hour event, Mary Oliver:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

You never know when that gene code goes haywire, or when the fighting and pounding emotional weight of damaging parents, vacant ones, criminal ones, users and abusers, you never know what sort of damage – epigenetic shaving and reforming – is done to the child’s brain, turning him or her into that borderline personality disorder living soul. The jury is in on this, and for sure, no Trump-Obama-Clinton-Ford-Bush-Reagan-Carter-Eisenhower in the world could ever get it, and since that is the law of the capitalist land, then not getting it means budget cuts, incarceration as hammer tool, legal financial obligation hell.

• A dysfunctional family environment. Children who grow up in families where they feel emotionally neglected or abandoned are more likely to develop BPD as adults. The trauma of physical or sexual abuse may also contribute to borderline personality disorder.

• Hereditary factors. BPD and other personality disorders are often seen in close family members, such as parents and their children or siblings. This indicates that certain individuals may have a genetic predisposition to BPD.

• Neurological factors. The impulsivity, emotional instability and unpredictable behavior of BPD may be caused by abnormalities in the areas of the brain that control mood, behavior and emotions.

• Brain chemistry. BPD may be linked to imbalances in certain neurotransmitters, naturally produced chemicals like serotonin that affect the way you feel and behave. People with BPD may not process these chemicals normally.

The complexity of life and the nuances of the grey world, the entire riot of life on earth –homo sapiens as flawed, wrecked, separate of tribe, broken of spirit, dispirited, torn into the battle of labor and profit, the uncaring land where profits rule, a society based on genocide, usury, balanced ledgers of the elite, the one percent, a land where slavery is alive, dawning of a new Jim Crow, every treaty for First Nations broken, the stew of the rot fed to our children, in the food we eat, to the media consumed, all rolled in a planko of emptiness and ennui.

Yet, these harbingers of high crimes – CEOs and policy wonks and the fathers of war and mothers of punishment – they have no brains when it comes to knowing people, knowing where pain arises, how the village has to raise the child, how socialism and a communist spirit are the only levelers of the mean, hard, murderous capitalist exploitive ways of the elites who have done a job on youth and poor people, who put their love and faith and zieg heil’s into the false humans aka despots like pigs such as Trump, celebrities, generals and strongmen. The henchmen of this society are the bureaucrats, the data collectors, the money rats, the financial renter insurance real estate class.

Here, another poem, not one picked by the judge, but one that is the fiber of where relapse and recovery meet:

It was not Death, for I stood up
By Emily Dickinson

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –

When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.