More Religious Discrimination Added to Blair County’s War on Drugs

I have written before of religious discrimination in the criminal justice system when it comes to the war on drugs, especially when you do not happen to live in a large city.  A quick refresher on the issue:  While there are secular alternatives to 12 step based treatment programs, the farther you get from a major city the less likely you are to encounter one of them.  In Blair county of Pennsylvania. which includes the city of Altoona, and the town of Hollidaysburg, as well as other communities, there are no S.O.S or SMART Recovery meetings available, and all local rehabs are 12 step based.  The 12 steps are an inherently religious program.  You will get arguments on this point from some; people who tell you that anything can be your higher power, that it doesn’t have to be God, that it can be a pencil or a doorknob; that it is a spiritual program, not a religious one.  These arguments, in my experience, come mostly from those trying to get you in the door, or trying to defend the program from claims of religious coercion. Some who have made these arguments have admitted to me later that eventually, for the program to work, your higher power has to become the God of your understanding.  Bill W., the founder of AA and the 12 steps, made no attempt to hide the religious nature of the program.  From the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Chapter 1 – Bill’s Story:

“They had told of a simple religious idea and a practical program of action.” pg.9

“I was not an atheist. Few people really are, for that means blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cipher and aimlessly rushes nowhere. ” pg. 10

“I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind, or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving His sway might be.  I have since talked with scores of men who felt the same way.   My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea.  He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”    That statement hit me hard.  It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years.  I stood in the sunlight at last.  It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself.  Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning…. This was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough.  At long last I saw, I felt, I believed.” pg. 12

“There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. ”  pg. 13

“Belief in the power of God, …., were the essential requirements.” pg. 13-14

“I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all.” pg. 14

“God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound.” pg. 14

Chapter 4 – We Agnostics:

“But cheer up, something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics. Our experience shows that you need not be disconcerted” pg. 44

“As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. ” pg.46

“Instead of regarding ourselves as intelligent agents, spearheads of God’s ever advancing Creation, we agnostics and atheists chose to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all. Rather vain of us, wasn’t it?” pg. 49

“One night, when confined in a hospital, he was approached by an alcoholic who had known a spiritual experience. Our friend’s gorge rose as he bitterly cried out: “If there is a God, He certainly hasn’t done anything for me!’’ But later, alone in his room, he asked himself this question: “Is it possible that all the religious people I have known are wrong?’’ While pondering the answer he felt as though he lived in hell. Then, like a thunderbolt, a great thought came. It crowded out all else:
Who are you to say there is no God?’’
This man recounts that he tumbled out of bed to his knees. In a few seconds he was overwhelmed by a conviction of the Presence of God. It poured over and through him with the certainty and majesty of a great tide at flood. The barriers he had built through the years were swept away. He stood in the Presence of Infinite Power and Love. He had stepped from bridge to shore. For the first time, he lived in conscious companionship with his Creator.” pg. 56

And so on and so on.  Chapter 4 of the Big Book is one of the most condescending pieces of “now now, it is time to grow up and stop your silly atheism” garbage I have ever read. I will always wonder how any atheist can read that chapter and ever attend another meeting.  But putting that chapter aside, make no mistake about it.  The higher power of the 12 steps is God.

And this religious program is routinely forced on drug users under threat of imprisonment.   Attendance at meetings is often a mandatory requirement of parole and probation.  Enrollment at a treatment facility for out patient or in patient treatment is also a frequent order.  Those who live in large cities often have choices on what type of meetings, and what type of treatment to enter.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy programs, SMART Recovery, and Secular Organizations for Sobriety are all options in addition to 12 step meetings and the facilities based on them.  For those in less urban areas however, often the only option is the 12 steps.   If on parole or probation, getting kicked out of a treatment facility is often cause for a return trip to jail.  One way to get kicked out of a treatment program is for not making a serious effort to work the treatment program.  If you don’t believe in God, you are not admitting that only he can help you stop using, and you are not turning your life over to Him, and thus not working the program.  So not believing in God can get you sent back to jail.

Seems unconstitutional to me.  *shrugs*  Personally, I have not been removed from a program for not believing.  However, I was kept for 11 months in a 4 day a week, 4 hour a day out patient treatment program that normally took 3 months to finish because of my failure to accept that I should turn my life over to God.

So now into this situation comes the newest form of drug treatment and religious coercion to enter my area:  Reformers Unanimous.  From my local fishwrap: (Bolding is mine…)

A faith-based program that addresses the drug and alcohol problems faced by defendants in the Blair County criminal court is getting high marks from county officials and is being used more often by local judges as an alternative to incarceration in a state correctional institution.

Blair County Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter became the third local judge to order placement of a defendant in the program called Reformers Unanimous.

Kent Fluke of Hollidaysburg is the Reformers Unanimous director, and he appeared Tuesday in Carpenter’s courtroom to explain the program.

The judge had to decide if a Blair County inmate, Aaron Waddell, 30, of Altoona, was to be sent to a state correctional institution for treatment or if he would be allowed to enter a local program.

Carpenter eventually decided that the young man would remain in Blair County and undergo counseling through Reformers Unanimous.

Waddell’s attorney, Lucas Kelleher, asked the court to consider referral to Fluke’s program.

The defendant told the judge that he began participating in Reformers Unanimous while in the county prison, and he said, “now I’m in my Bible daily.”

Now I do want to point out that from what I understand about this situation, Mr. Waddell is not being released from county prison at this moment.  He is participating in the program at the county jail for the time being.  He will, however, almost certainly get out of jail earlier staying in county and attending this program than he would have if he would have been sent to State Prison.  A state sentence requires that you finish a treatment program at your home prison before being eligible for parole.  The programs range from 6 months to 18 months long to complete, and it takes time to be moved into the state system after sentencing, time to be classified and moved to your home prison, and then time for a spot to open up in the program you need to enter.  His involvement with Reformers Unanimous will almost definitely save him months of jail time.

Fluke said the program includes a meeting every Friday night at the Dry Run Independent Baptist Church, but he made the point that it is faith-based, and he said, “Until we change their spiritual side, we are not going to change their physical side.

As part of the program, Waddell will be required to attend religious services, although Carpenter said he could not impose such rules on Waddell as a condition of probation.

Which cracks me up because he can impose attendance at 12 step meetings as a condition of probation.  A side note quickly; Dry Run IBC?  I’ve been there before.  Fundy with a capital batshit F.  Anyway….

Fluke said Reformers Unanimous is modeled on a program started by a former heroin addict. The program has 940 chapters throughout the world.

It has been in Blair County for two years but has become a program in the county prison only in the past six months.

Warden Michael Johnston said when he was approached about allowing Reformers Unanimous in the prison he and his staff decided to give it a go. He said the program would be reviewed by prison officials in the fall, but he has had no problems with it.

The prison’s treatment specialist, Abbie Tate, said Reformers Unanimous representatives come to the prison on Saturday nights for a group meeting with inmates.

“They got pretty good numbers,” she said, noting that as many as 30 inmates attend the Saturday night sessions.

She said the numbers have been “pretty steady” and Tate concluded, “I haven’t heard any negative feedback. I’m pretty well pleased with it now.”

The Friday night sessions have been drawing anywhere from 20 to 45 individuals, Fluke said.

So what is my problem?  If it is helping people, then good for it, and them, right?

12 step programs work for some people.  Some people are alive today because of them.  The actual statistics, that I’ve seen at least, are nowhere near as positive as what you hear from promoters of the programs, but they do help some people.  But it doesn’t work for a lot of people either.  CBT treatment, or secular treatment organizations, or maintenance treatment for opiate addiction (what worked for me) all work for different individuals.  Drug treatment is not a one size fits all problem.  For the fundamentalist Christian addict, I am sure Reformers Unanimous is a great resource and I am sure it saves some lives while saving some souls.

That being said, this is my problem with it….

Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva recently referred an Altoona man to the program who was in court because of a drinking problem that led him to become involved in three serious assaults in the last three years.

She also referred a Hollidaysburg man who nearly died of a heroin overdose to the program.

Judge Daniel J. Milliron in June told a 29-year-old Duncansville man to attend the program or face a long time behind bars.

Judge Kopriva’s “referrals” may have just been suggestions.  Other programs may have been offered as well.  Or the “referrals” may have carried more of an air of an order to them.  Coming from a Judge with the power to throw your ass in prison seems to make suggestions so much more appealing than normal.  Judge Milliron’s “either, or” choice seemed to vacate all illusions of “referral” or “suggestion.”  Either attend a religiously based program at a fundamentalist Christian church or spend a long time in pound me in the ass prison.

How is that not religious coercion?

Which quickly leads to…

How is that legal?

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