Fourteen months ago in San Bernardino County Jail, Craig Hunton wanted to die.
At 30, he had spent half of his life addicted to injections of methamphetamines and other drugs. His habit had cost him his wife, his three children, his home and several years of his life spent in prison.
But now, after completing a religion-oriented rehabilitation program called Celebrate Freedom Outreach, he is helping a dozen other ex-convicts learn how to live.
“When I came into this program, in October of last year, it was do or die,” he said. “I realized I had lost everything, and my self-hatred was so strong I couldn’t live with myself any longer. I was dead. I didn’t want to live. With all these guys it was the same way.”
Created and run by Bob Roll, a former convict and drug addict, Freedom Outreach operates a home on North Bush Street, where convicts may live after they serve their sentences, or where judges can send criminals as an alternative to jail time. The program has also accepted substance abusers and homeless people with no criminal records, program spokesman Steven Haymer said.
Twelve men share the four-bedroom Anaheim house, which has a pool and a weightlifting area in the back yard. Most of them come from county jails and prisons, Haymer said. Twelve other men have graduated from the program since it began in January, 1989. None have been returned to jail, and half have joined the program as staff members.
Rigidly enforced discipline plays a large part in keeping the men, who refer to each other as “brothers,” on track. They must rise by 6:30 a.m. for prayer and breakfast, go to work during the day and have lights out by 10 p.m.
The program is aimed at gradually making the men self-sufficient by getting them jobs and bank accounts. They are constantly monitored, and almost all of their time is spent either working or in religious study or prayer. Telephone calls and visits to the home are limited.
“We operate in grace and love, but there are strict guidelines,” said Hunton, who oversees the men.
A sign posted on the living room wall warns that residents will be expelled if they violate the rules: no violence, no smoking, drinking, dating, radio or TV, no staying out at night. Although an outcast member may apply for readmittance after 30 days, he must persuade the staff that he will abide by the rules.
Bunk beds cram the rooms, with Bibles resting at the foot of most of them. “That’s our sword. We couldn’t live without it,” Hunton said.
On a recent morning at 6:30 a.m., the men shuffled one at a time into the kitchen and made breakfast of cereal and hot coffee. They greeted each other with “good morning, brother” as they dressed and shaved before a long day of selling Christmas trees at four lots around the county.
In a room down the hall, Hunton had to rouse one straggler from bed, then make sure that Buck Druckenmiller, 20, had enough money for bus fare to make an appointment with his parole officer.
Toward the end of the average six-month stay, most of the men have jobs, while the others work at community service projects. But the three weeks before Christmas are devoted to selling Christmas trees to raise money.
Outside the Home Depot store in Fountain Valley, Jerry Sandoval, 45, and several other Outreach members operated a tree lot one afternoon recently.
The dark scars on the inside of Sandoval’s arms are testimony to his 30-year heroin addiction. The Stanton native said that if it was not for the program, “I’d be dead or drunk somewhere.”
“I gave up on seeing my family,” he said. But as a result of the program, his parents and children have welcomed him back. And on a recent picnic with them, he was able to get acquainted with his grandson, whom he had not known.
Deputy Public Defender Carolyn Forgey praised the program, saying it benefits everyone--the Outreach members, their families and the public.
“No question about it,” she said. “If they redirect their lives, recidivism is controlled. If you get into the fiscal aspects, jail costs are reduced. And many of the individuals go on to help others recover. It has a good reputation in the court.”
She also said the program works because it focuses on every aspect of the individual’s life, instead of singling out a specific problem.
“They try an approach (working) with body, soul and spirit,” Forgey said. “It works on all of the issues, not just the drugs. There’s a real loving, supportive environment where healing can take place. They can establish their sense of self-worth and become productive citizens. “
The $150,000-a-year operation is funded by local churches, fund-raising activities by Outreach and the county’s general relief fund, program spokesman Haymer said.
Last year, the organization, which was then based in Garden Grove, made enough money to open the home in Anaheim. The men moved to the Anaheim residence, and the Garden Grove home was used to house two women.
Outreach plans to use the money made this year from the Christmas tree lots to open a 40-bed home on a 57-acre ranch near Stockton and eventually to branch out throughout the country, Haymer said. The organization needs about $150,000 for a down payment on the $425,000 property, which organizers expect to raise within a year.
Last year, their lots were some of the busiest in Southern California, with more than $250,000 in business, raising $20,000 for the organization.
For now, Hunton plans to continue his work for Outreach by preaching to inmates in the AIDS ward of the California Institution for Men in Chino.
When he visits county jails and speaks to potential Outreach members, he offers himself as proof that the program works.
“I remember when I was out there in the (jail) chapel in the orange jumpsuit,” he said. “Now I’m there--and I can walk out. That’s what this is about: setting the captives free.”