Road to Recovery

The world can break your heart when you least expect it. For Adan Carriaga that devastating moment happened in 1984 when a drunk driver killed his mother. From that day on, he made a decision to end his own destructive drinking habit and, in honor of his mother's memory, turn his anger into something positive.

Today Carriaga dedicates his livelihood to giving others a second chance to sober up before they take an innocent life. "I wanted to help people clean up and be responsible," he said.

Carriaga is the division manager of New Mexico's Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center's DWI Addiction Treatment Program. His goal and the goal of the program is to focus on the inmates' recovery rather than their incarceration. The program aims to help solve the drunk driving epidemic that plagues Bernalillo County. While it might only make a small dent in solving a large problem, officials and inmates at the center believe in its potential success.

The program began in 1997 with funds from the state Legislature, following a bill pushed by North Valley Rep. Rick Miera to address a lack of treatment for DWI offenders. Resolving the DWI problem in New Mexico has been Miera's passion since taking elected office more than a decade ago. Miera's commitment to fix the problem as a public servant stems from his clinical work at the UNM department of psychiatry, where he works with adolescents and their families who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse.

"When I got into the Legislature, one of the issues that was heavy in my mind was DWI, so what I was looking for were alternatives to sentencing," Miera said, "not sitting [in jail] for six months, looking out the window wishing you had a drink."

The bill pushed by Miera ultimately funded the metro jail DWI treatment program and encouraged alternative sentencing such as treatment and education in contrast to just serving time.

Funding for the program comes directly from the state liquor excise tax. As Carriaga puts it: "In a sense, these people are paying for their treatment before they ever get here."

The 28-day program has been at maximum enrollment since its inception, with nearly 200 prisoners participating at any given time. There are currently an average of 35 men and five women added to the waiting list each week. Despite the fact that it is the largest DWI program in the state, the demand for treatment, for now, far exceeds the supply of counselors and space at the facility.

Room Without a View

It is 3:00 p.m., and the women's pod is in lock down/quiet time. This is one of the few breaks prisoners (clients as they call them) get from participating in the detention center's 12-step rehab program. Instead of enjoying a brilliant Albuquerque afternoon, they are confined to a cell with several other women all battling their own addictions.

There are currently 54 women in the program, all locked up for repeat DWI offenses. The women are busy with group therapy, classes and homework from the time they awake at 5:00 a.m. to lights-out at 10:00 p.m. With the exception of the orange jumpsuits, most of them resemble dutiful college students, studying and resting when they can in their bunks. But instead of taking academic exams, the inmates have to pass tests of their sobriety, peer and self-evaluation, and the ultimate test: will power.

The goal of the rogram is not to point fingers at the already convicted and humiliated, but rather to offer guidance, self-reflection and addiction awareness.

In their free time they focus on the workbook, "How to Escape Your Prison." They are responsible for completing everything in their workbook that goes over the 12 steps to treatment, such as exercises in self-reflection and gaining knowledge about their addiction and the consequences of their actions. The work focuses on how they view themselves and has them look into their past. If they don't complete the program, they will have to take it over again as a condition of their release. Constant tests are taken to ensure that the clients remain clean, sober and committed.

Sally, the oldest of the three women, who looked like late 20s or early 30s, said she landed in the detention center after being influenced by "the wrong people." She has been in the program since Dec. 11, 2002, trying to kick an addiction to crystal meth. She said the program has helped her to express herself and open up. She realized things that she'd kept hidden. "I learned about my addiction. I never knew I had one."

Jane had only a week to complete the program the last time we met in April. She said treatment for her crack addiction had taught her many valuable lessons. "It has helped me to look at things I put my family through. It helped me to forgive myself and deal with things rather than just feeling numb. It helps me to recognize what triggers me."

Ann has been in the program for six months. "I never thought I had a problem (with alcohol). I realized there were addictive behaviors I used to perform. This program has taught me to look deep down in myself. It made me look at what I did to my family and how to deal with emotion, nervousness and anger."

The women said that they developed a strong relationship with the other women and that they feel like a close-knit family. They are aware that they are going to face challenging situations when they return to the outside world and that this treatment program is only the beginning of their recovery. The challenge is trying to stay clean and not returning to old friends and influences.

"When I turn 21, I'll be legal," said Ann. "It's two weeks until I'm released. That's why the fears are there, on the back burner."

The Men's Pod

There are twice as many men as women – 128 to be exact. The men seemed more hesitant to speak at first, but as the interview went on they became very candid about their feelings. Of the five men I spoke with, four were addicted to alcohol and one to heroin. Each said he had learned something valuable from the program.

"It brings out issues we have to deal with to maintain sobriety," said Alex.

All the men said they believed that adhering to a religious faith was imperative to maintaining sobriety. Carriaga said that because individuals believe differently, it is up to each client to define his or her spirituality. The treatment is about treating the mind, body and spirit, he said, in various forms. "We don't force anything down anyone's throat, you need to look into the eyes of the man or woman in the mirror and decide to change," Carriaga said.

The five men in the pod all talked about how hard it is for them to speak openly about their failings and insecurities, because society teaches them to repress their emotions. "We have to reveal things, it's painful," said one client.

It's Still Prison

The men and women at the center have visitation rights, but only behind a monitor. For security purposes and because of the possibility of inmates receiving drugs from their visitors, they aren't allowed to physically touch or be near their loved ones.

Despite these obstacles, the men praised the program. James said he's maintained sobriety for a year and a half. He admitted that he is short tempered and that the program helped him to recognize his personality traits. He said they all realize it's going to be a life-long struggle.

"The first time I came here I was angry," said Jim. "The program taught me I'm an alcoholic. It's given us the tools to change our lives."

"We've never had a program like this before," James said, alluding not just to time spent incarcerated, but to all of life's misadventures that ultimately brought these men together.

Dedication and Devotion

Michael Harrison, a clinical coordinator at the center who has worked in the field for 15 years, said the treatment program is beneficial because it focuses on peer evaluation.

An important aspect of the program is that it hands a lot of the authority to the clients. In other words, Harrison explained, clients evaluate each other and work with their peers just as much as, if not more than, they work with counselors.

"We put the responsibility of the environment on the client," said Harrison, who embodies the definition of tough love, adding, "Sometimes you have to go in there and bark."

The counselors, however, have little trouble connecting to the clients. They know what it's like to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. They have all battled addictions to drugs and/or alcohol.

Harrison said the most rewarding thing about his job is seeing people want to take responsibility for themselves. "All of us believe that people can change and that's why we do it. Locking people away is not the answer."

The struggles that Aurora Cata, a counselor in the women's pod, faces have as much to do with staff turnover as with meeting the rigorous demands of rehabilitating repeat DWI offenders. She said that the security staff keeps changing and are often moved to different areas of the center.

"We are constantly parenting and re-educating," said Cata, "when it is important for the clients to have consistency in their lives."

Pete Valencia, a substance abuse counselor for the Spanish-speaking groups, said that the most rewarding thing for him is the progress clients have made. "I've actually seen them on the outside and they'll come and say 'hi.' I tell them 'You make it that much easier for me to go to work.' They provide the results."

Officials for the treatment program don't have an outcome study done yet, and success and recidivism rates are not always easy to quantify. Harrison and Carriaga said that it is difficult to predict what directions the clients have taken or will take. Sometimes the person you'd least expect to succeed will make it, or vice-versa. Meanwhile, the program is not cheap, estimated at $730 per person for 28 days, but the counselors and directors say they are committed to keeping it alive.

DWI and the Future

According to police reports from Albuquerque Police Department traffic analysis center, there have been 2,443 DWI arrests from January to May for 2004. The number of traffic accidents involving drivers under the influence is 298 from January to April.

Despite no official outcome studies, Adan Carriaga said a positive change has happened since the program first went into existence. For example, according to New Mexico Department of Transportation and the Division of Government research, DWI fatality rates have declined since the program's inception in 1997. Of course, New Mexico still registers an alarming number of DWI arrests and fatalities each year.

The ever-present waiting list at the metro jail treatment program only proves that there is more work to be done to provide rehabilitation for the overflowing list of offenders. The treatment has made a visible impact on the clients behind bars, and as they re-enter the outside world after completing the metro jail treatment program, these men and women at least have a shot at a clean and sober future.

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