Coming Clean

Roger was 18 years old, fair and blond. His nickname was "White Lightning." Roger had grown up in a series of foster homes, but since age 14 he'd been living on the streets. It wasn't much of a life. Roger shared a room with several prostitutes, who introduced him to drugs. He began a sad but common pattern of drug use--on again, off again. And the saddest part is the role the government played. It started when Roger decided to pull his life together. With supreme effort, he got off drugs. When a colleague of mine from Prison Fellowship saw Roger in the streets, he'd pull up his sleeves and show off his arms--free from the tell-tale tracks of intravenous drug use. "Look," he'd say proudly, "I'm clean." Then Roger disappeared from the neighborhood for several months. The next time my colleague saw him, he was sitting on a stoop, his eyes bloodshot, his skin sallow. He was on drugs again. It turned out Roger had been put in jail on a technical parole violation. While there, he had ready access to drugs. Roger said the guards gave it to him. In his words, "They wanted to keep me from making trouble." Prison should be one place where people like Roger could be free from the pressure to use illegal substances. But the fact is that inmates can get their hands on drugs at almost any time--from fellow inmates, from the prison psychiatrist, or from guards out to make a buck. Substance abuse is often worse in prison than outside. When I was in prison myself, I never went to sleep at night without smelling marijuana. States try to combat the problem by offering drug treatment programs in prisons. But slots are limited; and inmates who do get in are often released before the program ends. Only one-fifth of the inmates classified as "in need of treatment" ever complete a program. It leads to a sad and predictable merry-go-round. Inmates who don't have a drug problem when they enter prison often end up with one by the time they leave. Which leads them back to a life of crime. The connection between drugs and crime is well established. Citizens are assaulted and robbed for money to pay for drugs. Dealers knife and murder each other in turf wars. Innocent bystanders are killed in drive-by shootings. Of people arrested on drug charges, half are re-arrested for various crimes within 3 years. It seems obvious that we're not going to win the war against crime until we win the war against drugs. And I have a simple suggestion for the battle plan. What if inmates convicted of a drug-related offense were required to complete a drug rehabilitation program as a prerequisite for release. In one step, we'd clamp down on drug use in prisons and lay the axe to a major source of crime. Last year the federal government spent $10.5 billion to fight drugs. What if some of those billions were redirected to prisons--the one place where we can require drug users to come clean? In this election year, let's use our votes to tell politicians we want youngsters like Roger to get help. They should not be drawn into criminal activity through the very system that is supposed to stop crime.


Chuck Colson


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