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Rethinking Recovery: A New Haven Organization Empowers Addicts After Prison

The first call came in at 2:37 p.m. on January 25, 2018. A woman had fallen to the ground on Court Street, and she died soon after, the New Haven Independent reported. Two more calls followed in the next fifteen minutes. Within the hour, paramedics rushed five people to the emergency room at Yale New Haven Hospital. The patients had all smoked K2, a synthetic drug.

K2 is one of many drugs responsible for skyrocketing overdoses in Connecticut. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported that 917 people died due to accidental “drug intoxication deaths” in 2016—more than double the 357 who died in 2012. With high drug use comes questions about how the state should respond.

Approaches tend to fall into two camps: incarceration and rehabilitation. But in New Haven, a recovery house seeks to improve on existing options and provide more holistic services than standard rehabilitation centers. Believe In Me Empowerment Corporation (BIMEC), which caters to formerly incarcerated people in general, is one safe haven for recovering addicts in Connecticut. Most BIMEC clients were formerly incarcerated for drug abuse and receive counseling, housing services, employment training, and case management services through the organization.

On March 26, 2018, I visited the BIMEC recovery house, located in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood. When I arrived, I met James Walker, the organization’s executive director. He led me to a small conference room, where I observed a weekly meeting and spoke with several attendees.

Vanessa, a formerly incarcerated woman with loose red curls, told me about her struggle with addiction.

“I am an ex-crack cocaine and heroin addict,” Vanessa said. She called her time in prison “horrible.”

“For one, it’s a terrible culture shock,” she said. “The correction officers are jerks, rude, and belligerent.” She added, “The food is slop. If you don’t have money for commerce, you could be starving for days.”

Still, Vanessa said her arrest and imprisonment were an important wake-up call.

“If I wasn’t incarcerated, I’m positive I’d have been dead by now,” she told me. Even so, Vanessa does not credit prison with helping her overcome her addiction. She explained that she was motivated to quit drugs for her family’s benefit. “It was all for my son,” she said.

Most people incarcerated on drug-related charges continue to experience addiction problems after they leave prison. Ninety-five percent return to substance abuse, and 60 to 80 percent commit new crimes, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

For former inmates, BIMEC and similarly structured recovery homes, like A New Beginning Recovery Houses, Harrison House, and Step Up Inn, aid in the reentry process. BIMEC provides a space for its clients to focus on recovery while remaining sober, working, and doing community service.

Not all rehabilitation centers take BIMEC’s approach. While BIMEC aims to provide a holistic set of services, standard drug rehabilitation centers focus specifically on providing addiction treatment. The overarching aim of drug rehabilitation centers is to create an environment for addicts to recover both physically and psychologically.

But these centers do not always account for their vast array of needs. Without addressing the underlying causes of addiction—such as unemployment or inadequate access to mental health care—the centers can fail to fully rehabilitate their patients and set them up for success after their departure. Several BIMEC attendees said that before visiting a recovery home, they went to rehabilitation centers, where they had greater difficulty overcoming their addiction.

Wayne, another attendee, also considered checking himself into rehab but did not take steps to do so—until one day, he decided “he didn’t want dirt in his body anymore.”

Wayne visited three different rehabilitation facilities: the Stonington Institute, Rushford, and Grant Street Partnership. The basic routine at rehab, Wayne explained, involved “breakfast, morning meditation, lunch, group meetings, sports, and dinner.” At the last facility he stayed at, which had a strict no-tolerance policy, Wayne was caught using drugs. Wayne said he was “kicked out onto the streets.”

In some cases, attendees who leave a rehabilitation center sober do not receive continued support post-departure.

Once you’re out, you’re out,” Wayne said, shrugging. Some facilities are also underfunded and understaffed, which means that drugs can move “in and out of the place,” Wayne said.

Recovery homes attempt to address the constellation of challenges faced by formerly incarcerated drug addicts. Repeat felony offenders often struggle to apply for education grants, find jobs, and access social and vocational training. Recovery homes can help the formerly incarcerated find employment and avoid turning to drug-related crime.

At BIMEC, staff members help attendees create resumes and search for jobs. Employment can provide recovering addicts with a sense of responsibility and normalcy. A study conducted by Social Science & Medicine in 2012 found that “people holding down full time employment enjoyed the most physical activity and reported the lowest levels of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.”

Wayne and Vanessa both believe that recovery homes play a crucial role in ensuring that recovery is long-lasting.

Make [these programs] known to people—they change lives,” Vanessa said.

Wayne, who is employed as BIMEC’s house manager, told me he appreciates BIMEC’s services and gets along well with his therapist. “I’m doing awesome!” he said.

Still, Vanessa feels the effects of stigma as she rebuilds her life. “New Haven shuns and looks down on addicts,” she said. “On leaving prison, I found that my two best friends died because of cocaine overdoses. Nobody cared. Their names weren’t even mentioned in the papers.”

“People wrongly think drug abuse is a choice,” Wayne told me. He flagged the decision to try drugs as a critical turning point. “After that,” he said, “you just use them to numb the pain of life.”

At the end of my visit, Wayne flashed a toothy smile at me. He has begun to build his resume as manager at BIMEC, opening up opportunities for the future. On my way out, I saw a flash of red on his worn-out shirt—a badge that read, “Employee.”