Former President Obama: Drug Abuse is a Public Health Issue

In a YouTube interview, former U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized the need to reduce demand for drugs rather than simply locking people up. The President said, “I am not in favor of legalization. I am a strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem. When you think about other damaging activities in our society – smoking, drunk driving, making sure you’re wearing seatbelts – typically we’ve made huge strides over the last 20, 30 years by changing people’s attitudes. And on drugs I think that a lot of times we have been so focused on arrest, incarceration, interdiction that we don’t spend as much time thinking about ‘how do we shrink demand?'”

He said he would like to see more resources go towards drug rehabilitation so that those looking for help from a treatment program do not have to wait months for assistance, and that there should be a way of steering nonviolent, first-time drug offenders “into the straight and narrow,” through drug courts or similar programs.

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Stay’n Out In the News

Chelsea Now: At Bayview, Stay’n Out of trouble, going deep

Darlene Martinez, all of 5-feet, 5-inches tall, sat calmly as she faced her prison counselor, Paula Martin. “This is my sixth state bid [separate incarceration] in nine years.”

Martin’s breath caught when she heard that, she says now. She’d seen women who had been paroled, re-arrested, convicted, and repeated the cycle twice, three times, even four times. But “your sixth state bid? I am going to give you the business!” Martin told the younger woman, in the scolding tone of a big sister, “We are really going to give you a hard time.”

At Bayview, a nearly 30 year-old medium-security women’s prison housing up to 344 inmates, there are no “lifers” (persons sentenced to remain in prison for life). From the day they arrive, every inmate is plugged into myriad programs to prepare them for life on the outside. And given that more than 65 percent of New York State prison inmates report struggling with substance abuse, treatment for those addictions is often an essential first step- and for some of them, that means Stay’n Out.

Stay’n Out is run by New York Therapeutic Communities, Inc. (NYTC), a Hell’s Kitchen-based agency founded by Ronald Williams, who had helped found the 1970s, drug-treatment center Phoenix House. In 1977, the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) awarded Williams a contract to run a therapeutic community based on the Phoenix House model, which emphasizes personal responsibility, immediate consequences for actions, and intensive therapy to work to get at the roof of problems. NYTC began at a mens correctional facility in Arthur Kill, Staten Island, and came to Bayview a few years later…

When asked about her life before she entered the prison system, Darlene Martinez answered with one word: “Heroin.” Every time she was released, she said, heroin was there- and so were her old patterns, her tendency toward irrational anger and passivity in the face of what others wanted. During those years, Martinez completed numerous drug treatment programs, but nothing had really changed, she said.

“In those programs, I could just sit and be quiet,” said Martinez. I didn’t have to say anything. At the end, they give you a certificate, and nothing’s changed. That ended at Bayview, she said.

Over time and with much prodding, Stay’n Out taught her how to be more honest with herself and others- and to ask for what she wanted. She learned to observe, inside herself, “the fine line where things stop being rational and start being irrational,” she said. She also finds comfort in the fact that NYTC runs transition programs, like its Serendipity womens residence in Brooklyn, and support groups beyond that, so that even after parole, “my recovery has to continue, and will.”

On the first day of the program, Martinez and the others told Chelsea Now, everyone is given a blank page and told to write down their answer to the question: Who am I?

“No one had ever asked me to think about that before,” said Martinez.

That central question, said Stay’n Out director Paula Martin, is essential to her “ladies” acquiring the emotional tools they need.

Stay’n Out treats substance abuse as both a chemical dependency and a symptom of deeper problems, problems that if left unresolved will arise again in equally bad ways. And it treats the solution as a process of intensive work coupled with personal responsibility for even the smallest choices, and helps inmates learn to make different choices than before…

Stay’n Outs program is designed to last six to twelve months, but some women stay longer. Sholonda Tolbert, a 32 year-old college-educated mother of three, stayed in for 13 months before graduating this past April. She told Chelsea Now that when she came to Stay’n Out in early 2006, she firmly believed that she was not addicted to drugs and didnt need therapy.

Tolbert, a polished young woman with well-oiled curls and a professional demeanor, said that as an only child, “I’ve always been someone who can manipulate and get what I wanted… I came in [to the program,] and thought, with my vocabulary, my level of articulation, I can breeze right through this, and say nothing… Overall, I was not willing to work on anything.” But demands by counselors and peers that she be honest, she said, eventually got her to engage. “They did not deal with me as an inmate, but as an individual.”

Tolbert said that the tools she learned at Stay’n Out have helped her strengthen her relationship with her 14 year-old son. “I’ve gone down to the visiting room with them, brought the ‘Who am I?’ sheet and had my son fill it out, she said. I’ve used other exercises to get to know how he feels about having a mom in prison. Parenting skills and classes, a staple throughout Bayview, are particularly central in Stay’n Out, 95 percent of whose members have at least one child…

Another mother in Stay’n Out is Doris Romio, whose children are adults, since she has been in prison for nearly 27 years. She told Chelsea Now that when her 33 year-old son learned she had applied to Stay’n Out, “he was like, ‘Ma, you been in prison so many years. Why do you still need a drug treatment program?'” The answer, she said, was that she wasn’t finished.

“Before some of the things that happened in my life, I didnt speak on it,” said Romio. “It was easier to get high.”

When she began to talk to Chelsea Now, Romios voice was so soft that it was hard to hear her. During her first 20 years in lockup, at Bedford Hills, “I thought I did a lot of work,” she said. She earned a bachelors degree from Mercy College and had begun a masters degree before that program was shut down after the end of federal Pell grants for prisoners. She helped found the prisons AIDS prevention unit and co-wrote a book about it, “Breaking the Walls of Silence” (Overlook Press, 1998). And she completed more than one drug treatment program. But none of it, she said, addressed the hollow space inside her, the space that only drug use seemed to fill.

“When we had that paper ‘Who am I?’ I was stuck. I didnt know what to write,” said Romio, also a longtime mentor for younger inmates. It took Stay’n Outs active, persistent program of confrontation, counseling and reflection, she said, to get her to recognize what was blocking her, including her feelings of being overwhelmed by her family commitments. “I’m a caretaker,” she said. “It was a lot of pressure on me.”

Romios voice grew louder and more confident as she told how two counselors had urged her to look at her own responses to pressure. “Now I had two different people- Mr. Gonzales, Ms. Martin- who dont know me, and both were telling me, ‘This is something you have to work on.'”

Like Tolbert, Romio said she now talks more easily to her children, especially the daughter she left behind when the girl was only seven months old: “What she remembered of me was my smell,” said Romio.

Now Romio and her daughter talk about the future, about when Romio will finally be paroled in a few years. She told Chelsea Now that she hopes to complete her masters degree, that she wants to work “in a social services field…”

For Doris Romio, whose path through addiction has been the longest, the work that she has done at Stay’n Out has brought her to more solid ground, making her less dependent on the invincible armor drugs can briefly provide.

“Before, when I was using cocaine, I felt very powerful, and when I wasn’t I felt low,” she said, not so quietly. “I had no self-esteem, no sense of me, so I would take more. But now,” she said, “I know who I am. And I dont need that false courage.”

New York May 11-17, 2007

The Legislative Gazette: Funding Needed to Aid Substance Abuse Treatment

Despite unsuccessful discussion meant to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, substance abuse treatment providers are still emphasizing the need for increased aid, should reform ever occur…

“I live my life under the same conditions that parole enforced on me, but I do it myself,” said Curtis Bradley, an ex-user who treatment program representatives consider a model of success… Bradley is a graduate of Stay’n Out, a program whose president, Ron Williams, said is essential if ex-users are to adjust to a drug-free lifestyle outside of prison. Williams said in-prison treatment is “a wonderful time for engagement” but stressed that recently released ex-addicts need “vehicles” in the form of continuing treatment…

Albany, NY, June 28, 2004

TCA News: Stay’n Out Programs Receive ACA Accreditation

“This year the Stay’n Out Programs were among the first to receive accreditation status from the American Correctional Association as therapeutic communities in Correctional Settings. The intensive programmatic audit took place in the late spring of 2003. Both the male and the female Stay’n Out programs were measured against a set of over 125 standards culminating many years of effort by TCA Criminal Justice Committee Co-Chair Ron Williams.”

Washington, DC, Fall, 2003

WFTC Bulletin: Stay’n Out: A Twenty-Five Year Success Story

More than four hundred people gathered at New York’s venerable Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Stay’n Out program, the first successful therapeutic community designed for prison clients. It operates under the direction of New York Therapeutic Communities, Inc.

…The importance of this approach, according to New York Therapeutic Communities’ president Ron Williams, “is now being recognized at the highest levels of government, including the the US Justice Department, and on the state level, the Office of Criminal Justice Services.” In fact, he points out, the New York State commissioner, Chauncey Parker, recently visited both of the women’s facilities “and was very pleased and encouraged by what he observed.”

New York, Winter 2003

Dominion Newspaper: Prisoners breaking out in smiles

The first thing you notice about the prisoners at Bayview women’s prison, New York, is that they are smiling. Smiles are not something you see a lot of in New Zealand jails, but here it seems they never stop smiling.

The inmates are part of a drug rehabilitation programme, called Stay’n Out, that has been heralded as one of the most successful programmes in getting prisoners off drugs—and keeping them that way.

Now Arohata Women’s Prison, near Wellington, is among prisons around the world adopting Stay’n Out’s methods.

Ronald Williams, president of New York Therapeutic Communities, Inc., which runs Stay’n Out, a former heroin addict and inmate himself, is justly proud of the results the programme has achieved.

Wellington, NZ, October 19, 1999

The New York Times: Out of Prison and Off of Drugs: This Way Works

After serving the minimum three and a half years of his sentence for robbery and assault, Michael W. is scheduled to be released from a Staten Island prison one week for today, on Christmas Eve. He will be going home with a gift, courtesy of New York State.

Mr. W. who is 24 years old, is graduating from Stay’n Out, a drug treatment program founded by New York Therapeutic Communities, Inc. 13 years ago at the state’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility…

Like about three of four inmates entering the prison system, Mr. W. used illicit drugs. Without treatment, according to some estimates, as many as three out of four parolees eventually return to drug addiction and to criminality.

The average male inmate enrolled in Stay’n Out has been convicted four times and has spent four years in prison. About four in five of the inmates who enroll in the program graduate. Of those, one long-term analysis concluded, three of four have not gone back to drugs or crime. Unlike correctional systems in general, Stay’n Out largely lives up to its name.

December 17, 1990

The Wall Street Journal: Prison Drug Treatment Attracts Interest as Evidence Mounts That It’s Successful

Steve squirms in his chair, encircled by 30 men blasting him with descriptions of himself.

Various epithets—like “attitude problem”—ricochet around the crowded room. A short wiry man in his 20’s, Steve offers some mumbled resistance but eventually just hangs his head in silence.

Group character demolition, a ritual designed to clear the way for building new values, forms the heart of many drug treatment programs. But Steve is learning the hard truth about himself in a setting not known for rehabilitation: a state prison…

Helping resuscitate the idea of prison rehabilitation is the success of a program called Stay’n Out, which operates at the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility and at a women’s prison in Manhattan. More than 77% of the men who remained in Stay’n Out for nine to 12 months weren’t rearrested and stopped abusing drugs during the three years after their release, according to an independent study. Only 50% of a group of comparable parolees who didn’t receive treatment performed as well. Women graduates stayed clean even more often than men.

May 20, 1991

The Nation: Justice’s War on Drug Treatment

[Charles] was a high school basketball star in Brooklyn who used his reputation to pursue a career dealing drugs and invested his profits in his habit. He tried several times to clean himself up. But counselling at Phoenix House didn’t work, nor did a stint in a methadone program, where he used fake names to obtain extra methadone to sell. He ended up in Arthur Kill [Correctional Facility] on felony extortion charge, and in 1979 entered Stay’n Out. After getting out of jail that same year, [Charles] found a job doing menial work in a meatpacking plant, and rose during the next seven years to become an assistant manager. He also received an Associate Degree in Child Behavior from Long Island University, and in 1987 returned to Arthur Kill and Stay’n Out as a counselor. “Some people in Washington may not believe in rehabilitation,” [Charles] says from behind his desk at the facility. “But this is where the truth lies. I am a spitting example.”

Stay’n Out, pioneered by Ronald Williams, a former heroin addict who helped start Phoenix House in 1967, takes convicts with a history of drug abuse who are within two years of parole and places them within units segregated from the general prison population… For anywhere from nine months to two years, they attend seminars and counseling sessions on subjects ranging from how to find an apartment to how to understand what led to their addiction. “The jailhouse mentality stops at the door,” Williams says. “They are residents, not inmates.”

May 14, 1990

BusinessWeek: A Real Chance for a Turnaround

In the tough world of criminal corrections, one wing at New York State’s Arthur Kill prison stands out. In neat dormitory rooms and in quiet halls, prisoners are doing their jobs: typing memos, organizing meetings, mopping floors. Here, one group attends an orientation lecture. There, a no-holds-barred encounter group is in full sway… This is Stay’n Out, a model drug-treatment program for hard-core criminal drug abusers.

…A handful of state prisons have had striking results with group-living programs such as Stay’n Out. Based on residential treatment communities, they isolate participants from other prisoners, reducing the influence of prison culture and enhancing a community sense.

Ronald Williams… says Stay’n Out’s focus is on improving self-esteem, attitude and behavior. That means getting convicts, most with long histories of drug abuse, failed drug treatment, and crime to adapt to mainstream society and buy into a work ethnic—in effect, “habilitating” them for the first time. If these issues are addressed effectively, “you’ll also stop using drugs,” he maintains.

November 27, 1989