Project Helps Prisoners Free Themselves From Substance Abuse : Rehabilitation: Intense, 24-hour-a-day pilot program puts inmates in a single cellblock, where they learn to voice feelings and come to depend on one another.


Adam Gunnelles didn't know the 26-year-old woman he picked up in an El Cajon bar two years ago, but today, as he sits behind bars at R. J. Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa, he knows he will never forget her.

Gunnelles was drunk when his 1978 Pinto slammed into a tree and snuffed out the life of the woman, whose identity he learned only after having a subpoena slid under his front door. As usual, he numbed himself with alcohol to forget his problems and was grateful that he felt no guilt.

But Gunnelles, who is serving four years for the death, says he is a changed man thanks to an experimental substance abuse program at the prison that has helped him kick his drinking problem, and, more importantly, confront the suppressed emotions that drove him to take his first drink at the age of 14.

He can talk openly with the 199 other inmates in the program about the baby sitter who molested him at age 5, the parents who shuffled him from home to home, and the liquor that made it all go away. And he can talk about the accident too.

"For a long time, I felt the way I lived was acceptable, and I was really content," said Gunnelles, 25. "At the time (of the accident) I really felt guilty for not feeling guilty. Now I can think of the fact that there is a 7-year-old child without a mother and a family without a daughter. Being able to accept the crime and punishment has opened a lot of doors for me."

The program that caused Gunnelles' transformation is called Righturn. It is a joint effort by the California Department of Corrections and Amity, a nonprofit Tucson-based agency dedicated to helping drug addicts change their lives by exploring their inner feelings and sharing with others who understand.

Righturn is being heralded by prison officials and others as an answer to criminal recidivism caused by drug abuse because it lasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike most prison-based treatment programs that meet once or twice a week.

The pilot project--the first of its kind in California and one of three in the nation--works by having inmates live together in a cellblock segregated from other prisoners. They attend encounter groups together every day and look to one another as role models and for support.

The program is open to prisoners with a history of substance abuse who have at least nine months before they are released and who volunteer to try to wrestle with the addictions that destroyed their lives.

"Amity/Righturn is a process of moral development that is sort of like taking the film off the eyelids," said program director Elaine Abraham, who, like most Amity officials, is a former addict. "The guys are becoming more aware of the things around them. This is a bridge out of prison, a bridge into society."

Righturn began more than a year ago, when prison authorities sought an agency experienced in drug treatment to work with them on stemming the number of men repeatedly arrested for drug-related crimes, said John M. Ratelle, the warden at Donovan.

About 80% of the inmates who come through the medium-security prison have been incarcerated for drug-related offenses, including sales and committing crimes while under the influence, Ratelle said.

The Corrections Department chose Amity because of its 23-year history of helping substance abusers reclaim their lives and become reincorporated into society, Ratelle said.

Working together, the two organizations modeled a program based on a 1977 "therapeutic community" project first incorporated by New York corrections officials. That program made inmates who shared the common struggle of kicking a habit live and work together and come to discover themselves through self-analysis and group encounter sessions, corrections officials said.

Of those who have participated in the New York program for nine months to a year, 77% stay off drugs for at least three years after their release, authorities said. Although officials are enthusiastic about Righturn, they won't know how well the pilot project works for three years, when statistics on successes or failures can be formulated.

"From everything I have looked at, it seems that if a person manages to stay off drugs for 21-24 months then there is a pretty good chance that they will stay off," Ratelle said. "We need about three years to find out if it will work, but we figure if we can make at least 25% succeed, then we are making a whole lot of headway."

Reynaldo Gallego is one of the men officials hope Righturn will change.

Jailed for grand theft, Gallego has been in and out of prison six times for offenses related to his heroin-addicted days of "chasing the bag."

"None of the other programs worked for me. I just kept coming back (to prison) again and again, and one day I woke up and didn't like the person that I was," said Gallego, who is soon to be released. "Here in Amity, people really care about you, and I can talk about things that I don't usually talk to anyone else about. I can attack my problems on a daily basis."

Gallego and the other Righturn inmates begin the daily attack on their problems when they enter the program's twin bungalows next to Unit 15, where they are housed, correctional counselor Lolita Y. Johnson said.

There is a short morning meeting and announcements before the men, wearing denim prison uniforms, break into pre-assigned group workshops of up to 40 people that will last until about 8 p.m., Johnson said.

The beginners' seminar, which lasts two to three months, allows new members to come out of their shells and try to begin to tackle their problems. A second-level class of five to six months lets inmates confront social issues and relationships. The remaining time is spent in senior class workshops about getting ready to re-enter society, Johnson said.

Random drug tests are given all along but since the program started in late 1990 only one person has tested positive, Johnson said.

The workshops, on all levels, take on an intense, soul-baring quality as the men sit in a wide circle and reveal the horrors of their pasts and the hopes for their futures. The disclosures will help the men form intimate relationships with one another and learn more about themselves in the process, Johnson said.

In the end, there is the sense of accomplishment at finally conquering the drugs that ruined their lives and put them behind bars.

"I ran from myself with drugs all of my life," said Charles Neal, who is going to become a counselor with Amity when he is released in a few days. "I came here, of all places, and met the real me."

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