The Road to Recovery
Metropolitan Detention Center focuses on keeping DWI offenders sober
The world can break your heart when you least expect it. For Adan Carriaga that shocking moment happened in 1984 when a drunk driver killed his mother. From that moment on, he made a life-altering decision to end his own destructive drinking habit and, in honor of his mother's memory, turn his anger into something positive. Today Carriaga, a devout Christian, dedicates his livelihood to giving others a second chance to sober up before they take an innocent life. "I wanted to help people clean up and be responsible," he said.
Carriaga is the division manager of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center's DWI Addiction Treatment Program. His goal and the goal of the program is to focus on the inmates' recovery rather than their incarceration. It is a program that aims to help solve the drunk driving epidemic that plagues Bernalillo County.
The object of the program is to decrease the number of DWI arrests and fatalities. While it might only make a small dent in resolving a large problem, officials and inmates at the center believe in its potential success.
The program began in 1997 with funds from the state Legislature, following a bill pushed by North Valley Rep. Rick Miera to address a lack of treatment for DWI offenders. Resolving the DWI problem in New Mexico has been Miera's passion since taking elected office more than a decade ago. His commitment to fix the problem as a public servant stems from his clinical work at the UNM department of psychiatry, where Miera works with adolescents and their families that struggle with alcohol and drug abuse.
"When I got into the Legislature, one of the issues that was heavy in my mind was DWI, so what I was looking for were alternatives to sentencing," Miera said, "not sitting [in jail] for six months, looking out the window wishing you had a drink."
The bill pushed by Miera ultimately funded the metro jail DWI treatment program and encouraged alternative sentencing such as treatment and education as opposed to just serving time.
Funding for the program comes directly from the state liquor excise tax. Or as Carriaga puts it: "In a sense, these people are paying for their treatment before they ever get here."
Carriaga explained that the program focuses on peer evaluation and self-reflection, which is a major step to the inmates' recovery. The goal of the 28-day program is not to point fingers at the already convicted and humiliated, but rather to offer guidance, self-reflection and addiction awareness in order to make inmates conscious of their problem before their destructive behavior claims yet another life.
The program has been at maximum enrollment since its inception, with nearly 200 inmates participating at any given time. There are currently an average of 35 men and five women added to the waiting list each week. Despite the fact that it is the largest DWI program in the state, the demand for treatment, for now, far exceeds the supply of counselors and space at the facility.
It is 3 p.m., and the women's pod is in lock down/quiet time. This is one of the few breaks inmates (clients as they call them) get from participating in the detention center's 12-step rehab program. Instead of enjoying a brilliant Albuquerque afternoon, they are confined to a cell with several other women all battling their own addictions.
There are currently 54 women in the program. All of the women are locked up for repeat DWI offenses. Most of these women resemble dutiful college students (studying and resting when they can in their bunks), with the exception of the orange jumpsuits.
Although the age range for men and women in the program is between 25 and 55, you might say the program is a little like college. But instead of having to pass academic exams, the inmates have to pass tests of their sobriety, peer and self-evaluation, and the ultimate test: will power. Everyday they focus on their workbooks, How to Escape Your Prison, on their free time. They are responsible for completing everything in their workbook that goes over the 12 steps to treatment, such as exercises in self-reflection and gaining knowledge about their addiction and the consequences of their actions. The work focuses on how they view themselves and has them look into their past. If they don't complete the program, they will have to take it over again as a condition of their release. Constant tests are taken to ensure that the clients remain clean, sober and committed.
The women are busy with group therapy, classes and homework from the time they wake up at 5 a.m. to the time they go to bed at 10 p.m. They are also visited by speakers from Mothers Against Drunk Driving who emphasize the consequences of their actions and TVI representatives who encourage them to enroll in school and prepare for an alternative future.
The program constantly forces them to reflect on their lives, admit they have an addiction and, from what the inmates tell me, even feel guilt about what they have done. More importantly, the program makes them think about solutions to their problem with substance abuse and teaches them to admit that the problem exists.
Three women spoke to me about their addictions, struggles and goals. For privacy purposes, names of the inmates are changed.
Sally, the oldest of the three women, who looked like she was in her late 20s or early 30s, said she landed in the detention center because the "wrong people" influenced her. She has been in the program since Dec. 11, 2002, trying to kick an addiction to crystal meth and "where it has taken me." She also said the program has helped her to express herself and open up. She realized things that she'd kept hidden. "I learned about my addiction. I never knew I had one."
Jane had only a week to complete the program the last time we met in April. She said treatment for her crack addiction had taught her many valuable lessons.
"(The program) has helped me to look at things I put my family through. It helped me to forgive myself and deal with things rather than just feeling numb. It helps me to recognize what triggers me."
Ann has been in the program for six months. "I never thought I had a problem (with alcohol). I realized there were addictive behaviors I used to perform. This program has taught me to look deep down in myself. It made me look at what I did to my family and how to deal with emotion, nervousness and anger."
The women said that they developed a strong relationship with the other women there and that they feel like a close-knit family. They are aware that they are going to face challenging situations when they return to the outside world and that this treatment program is only the beginning of their recovery. The challenge is trying to stay clean and not returning to old friends and bad influences. And by confronting their addictions and admitting they have a weakness, the pervasive anxiety sets in, wondering if they are setting themselves up for failure.
"When I turn 21, I'll be legal," said Ann. "It's two weeks until I'm released. That's why the fears are there, on the back burner."
We discussed their future and personal goals. Sally said she wants to work for her family. From her youthful appearance, you couldn't tell that Sally had two teenage daughters. "I'm trying to get my relationship back together with (them)."
Jane said, "I do plan to go to school. I'm still kind of in the dark. I want to look for a part-time job, work and go to the gym."
Anne wants to take advantage of life's simple treasures. "I want to appreciate the little things like hiking and family functions. I want to get a job and go to school." She also needs to undergo treatment for dual diagnoses of depression and addiction.
There are twice as many men as women—128 to be exact. The men seemed more hesitant to speak with me at first, but as the interview went on they were very candid about their feelings. It was as though they wanted the world to know what the program has taught them.
I spoke to five men (whose names were changed as well). Four of them were addicted to alcohol and one was addicted to heroin. Each one said he had learned something valuable from the program.
Alex, in his early 20s, with tattooed arms and a "don't mess with me" demeanor, was actually quite open with his feelings when I talked to him about the program. "It brings out issues we have to deal with to maintain sobriety," he said. These issues have to do with their past, their fragile emotions and how they used the substance to try to bury painful memories.
All the men I spoke to agree that adhering to a religious faith was imperative to maintaining sobriety. Not surprisingly, in the 12-step program, spiritual awakening is one of the key elements the program highlights that help lead to life change.
Carriaga said that because individuals believe differently, it is up to each client to define his or her spirituality. The treatment is about treating the mind, body and spirit, he said, in various forms. "We don't force anything down anyone's throat, you need to look into the eyes of the man or woman in the mirror and decide to change," Carriaga said, adding that counselors take into consideration that each person has his or her own beliefs and the staff does not infringe on that.
When we talked about the challenges they've had in the program, they all said simultaneously: being honest, trusting the program, putting your pride aside, letting out hidden problems from your childhood. "We have to reveal things, it's painful," said a client, anonymously known as James. The five men in the pod all talked about how hard it is for them to speak openly about their failings and insecurities, because society teaches them to repress their emotions.
Though they are in treatment, it's still prison, which was not designed to be pleasant. They don't have any privacy. The men and women at the center have visitation rights, but only behind a monitor. They aren't allowed to physically touch or be near their loved ones. This is done for security purposes and also because of the possibility of inmates receiving drugs from their visitors.
Despite these obstacles, the men praised the program. James said he's maintained sobriety for a year and a half. He mentioned that he is short tempered and that the program helped him to recognize his personality traits. He said that they all know it's going to be a life-long struggle.
Each of the five men I interviewed confirmed that the program has helped them to express themselves. Jim, one of the quiet ones, spoke up in a rare moment of comfort: "The first time I came here I was angry. It's taught me I'm an alcoholic. It's given us the tools to change our lives." In response to this, James pointed to a serenity prayer that they say everyday: "Take my will and my life. Guide me in my recovery. Show me how to live."
"We've never had a program like this before," James said, alluding not just to time spent incarcerated, but to all of life's misadventures that ultimately brought these men together.
The majority of the men I spoke to are mentors within their pod, which means they are peer leaders when in separate groups.
We discussed some of their goals when they re-enter the outside world. James and Alex keep it simple and practical with their goals of maintaining a job and staying sober. James also wants to go to school, enhancing his prospects, however vague at the moment, of someday earning a "decent living."
Jim said that the program has helped him so much that he wants to work as a counselor. As I was about to leave, he added: "We have great counselors, but it's what you got in the inside. It goes way back to childhood. If we don't stop this, our children will go through it."
Carriaga proudly honors the metro jail staff, saying the program is sustained by their dedication and optimism in the face of very emotionally demanding circumstances. The staff are all licensed by the state of New Mexico and are certified in MRT counseling. The counselors all do case management in groups.
Michael Harrison, a clinical coordinator at the center who has worked in the field for 15 years, said the treatment program is beneficial because it focuses on peer evaluation.
An important aspect of the program is that it hands a lot of the authority to the clients. In other words, Harrison explained, clients evaluate each other and work with their peers just as much if not more than they work with counselors.
"We put the responsibility of the environment on the client," said Harrison, who embodies the definition of tough love, adding, "Sometimes you have to go in there and bark."
The counselors, however, have little trouble connecting to the clients. They know what it's like to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. They have all battled addictions to drugs and/or alcohol.
Harrison said the most rewarding thing about his job is seeing people want to take responsibility for themselves. "All of us believe that people can change and that's why we do it. Locking people away is not the answer."
The struggles that Aurora Cata, a counselor in the women's pod, faces have as much to do with staff turnover as with meeting the rigorous demands of rehabilitating repeat DWI offenders. She said that the security staff keeps changing and are often moved to different areas of the center.
"We are constantly parenting and re-educating," said Cata, "when it is important for the clients to have consistency in their lives.”
Harrison added that retaining objective security personnel always seems to be one of the greatest struggles for the program. "It is important that all the staff work without prejudice," he said.
Chuck Conner, who has been a counselor for 17 years and sober for 22 years, shared Cata's sentiments about the benefits of the program. "I enjoy this kind of work. It gets clients to open up," Conner said.
Aside from getting the clients to make that first step to recovery, the counselors are also helping themselves stay sober. As they all said, it's a life-long mission.
Conner said that one thing that he hopes to bring to his clients is "to let them know that they have a choice so that they'll snap one day like I did—to know that change is possible."
Pete Valencia, a substance abuse counselor for the Spanish-speaking groups, said that the most rewarding thing for him is the progress clients have made. "I've actually seen them on the outside and they'll come and say 'hi.' I tell them 'You make it that much easier for me to go to work.' They provide the results." He said that he saw one client at his place of employment. "You get the feeling I helped, but then you think 'I'm just doing my job.'"
Officials for the treatment program don't have an outcome study finalized yet, and success and recidivism rates are not always easy to quantify. Still, the program's first comprehensive outcome study is expected to be out in late July or early August. Harrison and Carriaga mentioned that it is difficult to pinpoint what directions the clients have taken or will take. The counselors said that sometimes the person you'd least expect to succeed will make it, or vice-versa. Meanwhile, the program is not cheap, estimated at $730 per person for 28 days, but the counselors and directors say they are committed to keeping it alive.
According to police reports from Albuquerque Police Department traffic analysis center, there have been 2,443 DWI arrests from January to May for 2004. The number of traffic accidents involving drivers under the influence is 298 from January to April.
Despite no official outcome studies, Adan Carriaga said a positive change has happened since the program first went into existence. For example, according to New Mexico Department of Transportation and the Division of Government research, DWI fatality rates have declined since the program's inception in 1997. Of course, New Mexico still registers an alarming number of DWI arrests and fatalities each year.
The ever-consistent waiting list at the metro jail treatment program only proves that there is more work to be done to provide rehabilitation for the overflowing list of offenders.
No one is certain just what road the inmates will take after this program. The treatment has made a visible impact on the clients behind bars, but as they re-enter the outside world after completing the metro jail treatment program, clients are at least aware that a clean and sober future is possible.