Cellies, survivors and knuckleheads
A former prisoner discusses 10 years clean and sober and playing “The only game that really matters.”
By Butch Warner 04/17/2008
Nineteen ninety-eight was a great year for many people. Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals broke Roger Maris’ all-time single-season home run record by banging 70. James Cameron had a hit with the epic Titanic, the blockbuster movie of the year. Little girls swooned over ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake, but we all knew Justin was just a flash in the pan. That new technology kid, the Internet, was taking off, and Business Week promised to show you, “How the Internet works: all you need to know,” and Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill was president.
(Well, maybe it wasn’t such a good year for him.)
Nineteen ninety-eight wasn’t such a good year for me, either. I was arrested three times for crimes associated with addiction to Xanax and speed; I was convicted of two felonies, and I spent 160 days in jail in Ventura County. I could have done 240, but people were only doing two out of three in those days. Good Time is what they called it, but it’s really Not Bad Time.
You only lose it if you screw up and hit someone, or mouth off to a deputy.
Before all that, I was a writer and musician in Washington, D.C., and San Antonio. Where it all went wrong is a completely separate story, but the short story is that an addiction to prescription and street drugs got completely out of hand.
I was shuttled among three detention facilities: The Main Jail in Ventura, “Todd Road” in Santa Paula, and The Camarillo Work Furlough Facility, where I was in the Stages Drug and Alcohol Rehab. There you’re allowed to wear street clothes, breathe fresh air, and receive some treatment for your addiction.
Eight years ago, I wrote an article about my experience in jail for the Ventura County Reporter. It was called “The County Jail Survival Guide,” and it was written as a spoof of survival TV shows, like Survivor, Weakest Link, and Fear Factor. My article lambasted the phony survival shows with a tongue-in-cheek description of the “games” you have to play in jail, like “The Keistering Game” (how much contraband can you smuggle in your butt), Suicide Watch, and Strip Search, which is related to the Keistering Game, among other activities.
In the ultimate ironic twist, I now work as a psychotherapist at Pasadena Recovery Center, home of Dr. Drew Pinski and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. The difference is I’m not writing about reality and survival shows now, I’m living one. And there are no cameras on me and my clients, who are fighting for their lives.
The road to my redemption has been long and arduous, but I now live a comfortable life, drug and alcohol-free, with a great job, a great woman and no cops knocking at my door.
The vast majority of the men with whom I was incarcerated have not been as lucky as I was. Most had been there before, and most of them have gone back. National statistics show about half of released inmates return to jail or prison within three years. The figure is even higher stretched over 10 years.
I attempted to follow up on the lives of some of the people I got close to in jail. It’s hard to follow up on drug addicts and cons, but I did manage to track down four of them.
The obituary stated that Kenny, my cellie, or cellmate, at Todd Road, died of “heart failure” in the first year after our release. Of course, everyone eventually dies of heart failure — heroin addicts die of OD’s, and that’s what killed Kenny. He left behind a wife who owned a shop in Downtown Ventura. Kenny talked about heroin constantly in our long conversations in our small cell in section B-6. The euphoric recall of his drug of choice was so powerful that he almost convinced me to meet up with him and try “the best China White” you’ll ever get, but I somehow resisted.
I kept in touch with David, the Hell’s Angel who helped me in many ways when I was locked up at Todd Road. When we first met, he talked me into fighting a Latino kid who was harassing me, and, even though it meant losing three days Good Time, it was great advice, because I never had to fight again. He was an artistic genius who enjoyed working with stone, metal and wood, and when I knew him in jail, he earned extra commissary money by doing stylized drawings of sad clowns. David, died in December, 2007. I will miss him.
Bret, a Mormon who was charged with two DUI’s in the same week, and I lived at the Traveler’s Beach motel for a few months after our release. I drove for him and took him to physical rehab after he suffered a near-fatal fall in late 1998. Eventually he returned to Utah to work construction, not much worse for the wear but still in denial that he had a drinking problem.
Damon, nicknamed Cornboy, and I corresponded for a few years, but he returned to jail a few times and, at last sighting, was still having problems with heroin.
I could have easily ended up in the same boat as most of my fellow prisoners, but I was fortunate enough to never return to jail, and never touch a mind-altering substance after 1998.
When I got out of jail I had nothing but the clothes on my back, no I.D., no vehicle, no home and very few friends I could count on. I felt lower than the Ventura homeless people who gathered and slept on the Ventura River bottom: At least they had a hustle, like panhandling, or access to social services. My self-esteem was nonexistent.
The road ahead of me seemed overwhelming. I think addicts and alcoholics have a tendency to look at the future as a big mountain of tasks, and when you look at life that way it does seem overwhelming. At about that time, my friend Tom Williams gave me the best advice of my life: “Just do the next indicated thing.” That’s even easier than One Day at a Time.
Two people who were instrumental in my return to normal living were Debbie De Vries and Armando Vazquez, whom I met at the Stages Program in Camarillo. They proved to me and other cons that there are decent human beings willing to help people in the system. Armando shook our hands before every session and Debbie hugged us, and many of us had not been touched or hugged in a long time. Debbie and Armando were there for me when I was released in August: They helped me get my computer (which had been trashed) from the “evidence room”; and they gave me some work to do, writing résumés, with the very people I had left behind in jail.
While I was in jail I made a list of 50 things that I wanted to accomplish when I got out: things like running a marathon, finding a new career where I could help others, getting some freelance articles published, earning my master’s degree, replacing the music and computer equipment I had lost or pawned in the last few years, going to Europe again, finding the love of my life, and, most important, getting in good enough shape so that I could run through Ventura with my shirt off.
As of today, I’ve done most of those things. I’ve been paid for several freelance articles. An article of mine was voted Second Best Magazine Story by the Orange County Press Club in 2002. I’ve finished four Los Angeles Marathons, three on foot and one on a bike when I was injured. I got my master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University in 2006, and I’m licensed by the state as a marriage and family therapist intern. I’ve worked at Promises, Beit T’Shuvah, and Pasadena Recovery Center, three of the best rehabs in the country. I now live with the love of my life, a psychoanalyst, in the Studio City hills above the San Fernando Valley, and life is sweet.
But my journey from Ventura jail to Ventura Boulevard was not without its trials. I couldn’t open a checking or savings account until 2003, because I couldn’t pay my bills in jail and got lousy credit. I was fired from my $7.50 an hour first job as a telephone rep at Teleco in Ventura because I was “too smart for my own good.” I lost my first job as a substance abuse counselor, at American Recovery Center in Pomona, because I attached my Hotmail account to the company computer network so I could check my e-mail. I lost my first vehicle, a $300 truck I bought from a tweaker, when the cops rousted me, found out the registration wasn’t valid, and had it towed away. I lost my first girlfriend to Hawaii in 1999 because she said I wasn’t “the whole enchilada.” (I realize now that it was she who was a few tacos shy of a fiesta salad.)
I was forced by the Los Angeles Probation Department to leave my second job as a Prop 36 counselor, because I was a felon, and they didn’t want felons working with probationers. I lived in six different places in one year in the Inland Empire as I kept struggling to make more money at different facilities. The list is endless.
I made many mistakes, but one of the things I did right was join a 12-step support group immediately after my release. This support group, which met on Main Street in Ventura, was a place I went to nearly every morning for the four years I lived in Ventura, and it’s the place where I met a group of men and women who helped me change the course of my life. I still go to meetings there when I visit Ventura three or four times a year, and I love and need the meetings as much today as I did when I was fresh to recover. Like Ventura itself, that group has gone through some changes. Bill, my good friend and benefactor, died last year. The group now meets in a new location, but it’s basically the same people who saved my life when I thought it was over.
Another thing that helped save my life was running, and boy did I run. I jogged 50 miles a week, from my rented apartment at Peninsula and Harbor to Emma Wood State Beach and back.
I would run to my 7 a.m. meeting along Harbor and then continue my run to the northeast, along the bike paths and roads. I loved to watch the dolphins and scamper on the tracks of the Southern Pacific railroad. I learned to love the fog and the calm of San Buenaventura, two things I had not been especially fond of before. Running helped me break the sadness and anxiety I suffered from in those early days, depression and worry borne from the sheer hopelessness of my situation then. I really didn’t have any idea how I was going to repair a life that had been completely torn to shreds, but I had hope and faith and a job, and I vowed that I was never going back to jail again, and that I was never going to be a slave to substances again.
I could not possibly have made it through those early days without Debbie and Armando. I remember Armando telling me it had “always been my dream” to open a cultural arts center to serve the Latino populations in Ventura and Oxnard, and I’m proud to say that I was there at the beginning, as they took me on to work as a vocational specialist with prototypes of the Women’s Center in Ventura and Pomona, Khepera House rehab, and Work Furlough in Camarillo. I wrote résumés, taught computer and GED courses, and helped men and women in recovery find jobs.
Although I had steadfastly maintained upon my release that I wanted to “get as far away from addicts and criminals as I possibly can,” it wasn’t in the cards for me. Working with Debbie and Armando, I tasted the blood of helping people, and I never turned back. When our contracts ran out I decided I wanted to continue as a substance abuse specialist, and eventually a psychotherapist and addiction specialist, and that is what I do today.
On paper I practice “cognitive-behavioral” therapy, but in reality my bread and butter is 12-step therapy. You won’t hear much about 12-step therapy in the textbooks and in the halls of academia, but I truly believe the only reason it is not touted as the most effective form of psychotherapy is that it’s usually free, and hence no one can charge for it. No matter where you are in the United States and many countries of the world, there’s probably a meeting within easy driving distance some time in the next few hours.
Twelve-step therapy demands rigorous honesty, a “one day at a time” mentality and a commitment to changing the way you act and think. It’s a framework that anyone could benefit from, and it requires complete acceptance of your role (“your part”) in the lifestyle you’ve created for yourself.
If you had cancer, and the doctor said, “We can’t begin to treat this until we know why you acquired it,” you’d think he was nuts. Yet many people believe the myth that “if they only knew the cause” of their problems, they would be cured.
As my mentor, Dr. Lee Bloom says, “No one ever got better sitting in a chair or lying on a couch and talking to a therapist.” You’ve got to get up and “act your way into right thinking,” as 12-steppers are fond of saying.
Addiction is a gradual acceptance of the unacceptable. You get a DUI, you go to jail, and all of a sudden jail is normal. You go to rehab, and now rehab is a part of your life. You go to jail, and suddenly you can do 30 days just to get a little rest.
I never thought when I was being taught by the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., that I would get a divorce, go to jail, go to rehab, practically become homeless, and do a hundred other things that I once saw as unacceptable. My addiction began to come to an end when I said, “No mas. This life is not acceptable!”
My felony was expunged in 2006. (See sidebar on how to expunge a felony in California.) I received a great sense of closure from this, and I am greatly indebted to Julia English of the Ventura Public Defender’s Office for making the process a no-brainer. On Aug. 23 of this year, if all goes right, I’ll celebrate 10 years clean and sober.
It will be, I think, the sweetest day of my life, because I will know that I have survived, so far at least, in the real world, in the only survival game that really matters.
How to expunge a felony
If you were convicted anywhere in California, if you are not currently facing criminal charges, and you answer “yes” to these four questions, then you can probably expunge your felony:
1. Were you granted probation?
2. Did you complete that probation without any problems?
3. Are you off all probation now?
4. Have you paid all your fines, fees, restitution, and/or traffic tickets?
Under California law, felony convictions can be expunged as long you did not serve a state prison sentence and successfully completed the terms of your probation.
If you’ve been convicted of a felony and you’ve completed your probation without having been “violated,” then it would behoove you to get your felony expunged. Felony expungement means that you don’t have to answer “yes” to the felony question on a job application. The charge will remain a “prior,” though, if you catch another “beef.” And you’ll still be considered a felon by most state agencies.
If you live in Ventura, it’s easy. First, contact the State Franchise Tax Board at www.ftb.ca.gov or (800) 852-5711 or the Ventura Courthouse (805) 639-5010 and make sure you don’t owe any fines, court fees, or restitution. Then contact the office of the public defender (805)654-2201 and they’ll do the rest. In my case, it didn’t cost a cent.
If you were convicted elsewhere in California, contact the courthouse where you were convicted. You don’t have to hire an attorney, but many will help you for a fee.
Keys to success at Café on A
Dr. Deborah De Vries and Armando Vazquez, MA, started what is now known as KEYS about 10 years ago when they first started working on “Armando’s dream,” the Café on A. Today the Café on A/Rudy F. Acuna Gallery and Cultural Arts Center showcases Latino artists from Ventura, Santa Barbara, and L.A. counties.
KEYS works with disenfranchised groups, including farmworkers, those in rehab and those in the jails who need jobs. Says De Vries, “We found that there were core competencies that they all needed — including building up personal self-confidence and basic communication skills. They particularly need to be able to solve real world problems like concerns with family and friends.
“Slowly the curriculum evolved, based on our collective 30-plus years in education. When we started we had about 25 as about the largest class size, and now this group has grown to about 35. We are blessed to be doing the work we do.
“We have many success stories. I think we are proudest of the ones who have been able to get off probation, get out of legal issues, find homes, start jobs and go to college. We love it when kids come back, and say, “You turned my life around.”
The Café on A is at 438 South A Street, Oxnard, CA 93030, in downtown Oxnard. Phone numbers are: (805) 216-4530, 216-4560 or 487-8170.