Program helps inmates break away from drugs

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 24, 1983

The torn window screens and peeling paint are a contrast with the delicate scientific equipment in a room in the security unit at Oregon State Hospital.

The equipment provides a fast, detailed analysis of prisoners’ urine in an integral part of a program called Cornerstone, which attempts to wean inmates from alcohol and drugs.

Begun in 1976, Cornerstone is Oregon’s pre-release program for prisoners whose criminal behavior is linked closely to chronic alcohol or drug abuse. It provides a bridge between prison and society for 30 prisoners at a time.

“The equipment is able to detect the presence of drugs at an extremely low level,” said Dr. Roger C. Smith, who directs the correctional treatment programs at the hospital.

He said a prominent feature of the testing is that results are available quickly so prisoners can be confronted with the evidence on the same day. He said this ability to rapidly catch those who violate the ban on use of drugs “creates credibility in the program.”

“A week’s delay is a lifetime to a prisoner,” he said.

Those accepted into the program must agree to regular urine testing, counseling, a treatment plan and meetings with fellow participants.

The inmates begin the program four to six months before they are to leave prison. After being released, they must meet regularly with counselors and be available for urine testing for six months.

Those selected for the program are recommended by their counselors in prison because of chronic problems with drugs or alcohol. Even so the drop-out rate is high.

Smith said usually 75 percent drop out in the first 30 days.

Once the prisoners get through the program, however, the recidivism rate is much lower than the rate for those not in Cornerstone. More than 70 percent of Cornerstone graduates stay out of prison for at least three years.

George Williams, 51, who has spent most of his life in prison, said he felt strongly that he had turned away from crime because of the program.

He works as a maintenance engineer for the Marion-Polk Counties Council on Alcoholism but participates in Cornerstone’s weekly sessions in which prisoners talk to graduates who have succeeded.

Cornerstone participants are members of therapeutic families of up to 15 inmates who meet five days a week for about two hours. They solve interpersonal problems and plan activities, training experiences and work assignments. Emergency sessions also can be called by any family member at any time to discuss a personal crisis.

It was at one of those emergency sessions that Williams said he was able to release his feelings about the drug-overdose death of a woman with whom he had been living.

“Most guys in prison stuff feelings down inside them,” Williams said.

Counselors sit in on the family sessions, but the only restriction is that prisoners may not leave their chairs in an aggressive action. That would mean immediate expulsion from the program, Williams said.

Smith said a high percentage of those going into the program have drugs in their urine, especially marijuana, which can show up two or three weeks after use.

“There is a lot of marijuana in prison,” he said.