Keith Whiteman was first locked up in 1995, at age 20. Three years in prison, five months out—then he offended again. Another two years in prison, seven months out. Three more times he returned, spending years behind bars and then a few months free. Each time he committed yet another offense (or several), all a byproduct of his addiction to drugs. “A recidivating machine,” Keith described himself to me.
Overall, Keith had 40 felony convictions, six felony imprisonments, and many more stints in jail. Each cycle came at a cost, both to him and to society. During 15 years in the custody of the Washington State Department of Corrections, Keith took advantage of every “treatment” program the Department of Corrections (DOC) had to offer. Yet, while you could lock him up a countless number of times, for longer and longer sentences, it wasn’t until he was released into a web of support that he was able to break the cycle of imprisonment: going in with a drug addiction, coming out with a drug addiction, and reoffending.
In 2008, though, something changed: Just before his release, Keith connected with the Post-Prison Education Program, and we delivered. We stood with Keith and his family as he strived to build a life worth living. The Post-Prison Education Program facilitated and encouraged his entry into and success in college; provided housing, groceries, transportation, and additional basic needs; and, importantly, mentored Keith intensively. For the first time, Keith said, people cared about him who weren’t related to him, who owed him nothing. Buoyed by hope, he was able to overcome addiction, earn a college degree, launch a career in human services, and father his son with consistency and dignity.
Dr. Gabor Mate’s words come closer than any I’ve ever heard or read that adequately explain the power of addiction: “people jeopardize their lives for the sake of making the moment livable. Nothing sways them from the habit—not illness, not the sacrifice of love and relationship, not the loss of all earthly goods, not the crushing of their dignity, not the fear of dying. The drive is that relentless.”
“Prison wasn’t the solution,” Keith said in an interview for the new Brave New Films feature about addiction and incarceration, Sentencing Reform: Drug Addiction, released today. It never is, and it never will be. Noted criminal-justice analyst David Lovell, who spent years as a research professor at the University of Washington, once argued that the DOC is incapable of successfully addressing recidivism, readmission, overdoses, and suicides. “Probation and community corrections officers can’t really manage cases, at least not by themselves, in a way that responds in a timely fashion,” Lovell wrote. To help high-risk prisoners in their time of need, “you need to be available and trusted. That’s not a reasonable expectation for DOC employees,” by virtue of their enforcement role. “Many of them do their very best,” he wrote. But what corrections officers in the community do—supervise ex-offenders and refer them to programs—does not “take the place of a genuine relationship between the ex-prisoner and his or her real community of support.”
If what Americans really want is sheer hateful vindictiveness and punishment with no intent of rehabilitation, they should by all means continue on the course set by presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and now Trump: Build more prisons, increase sentences, call for the death penalty for drug dealers, and continue to throw away taxpayers’ dollars at a rate of as much as $504 billion per year. Continue to be blindingly, inexpressibly ignorant, while failing to improve community safety even one whit.
However, if our country wants to help pull people out of addiction and into productive, healthy, and hopeful lives, they should listen to what Eldon Vail, former secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, proposed to me years ago: Commit, in the state legislature, to reducing the prison population, starting with long-term prisoners. Release people only into programs with a proven track record that are centered in evidence-based principles and include treatment, job training, education, and/or employment. The programs should handle all the casework; probation officers, he said, should be there for enforcement only. Dedicate half the savings from a reduced prison population to the programs supporting former prisoners on the outside.
Such an approach would save taxpayer dollars, Vail said, in the short and long term, and would enhance community safety. What’s more, when people who have long suffered from addiction leave prison and land in a well-knit safety net, they can build lives worth living for themselves, their families, and our communities. Just ask Keith Whiteman.