The National Catholic Review
Peter Ninemire
My journey from childhood to prison, and my abrupt release from a near-life sentence for growing marijuana, is an unlikely one. I grew up in rural northwestern Kansas as one of eight siblings of Catholic parents. I am proud to say that I have a brother who has been a priest for close to 30 years. He and the rest of my family endured my tumultuous odyssey from troubled teen to addict to prisoner and later witnessed my personal transformation and release.

My insecurities as an overgrown kid who wanted to be accepted, plus an inability or refusal to meet the demands of an authoritarian but caring father, led me to alcohol and marijuana by age 14. I smoked marijuana to fit in with my peers and to rebel against the authority figures in my lifeparents, teachers and, eventually, officers of the law. What began as a recreational hobby became an addiction. By smoking marijuana, I could escape the pressures from my mom and the church as well as my father’s anger and frustration at my behavior. Getting high was at first a conditioned response to difficult situations and feelings, but eventually became my response to virtually all situations.

After my father passed away at age 57 from bone cancer when I was 22, my life took a dramatic turn. I quit my job and experimented with cocaine; I cultivated marijuana and started selling it. I was making easy money but was hanging out with a dubious crowd. Most of my friends used or sold drugs. My lifestyle choice carved a large, unexplainable gap in my résumé. Over time my addictive beliefsthe things I told myself that made it okay to use and sell marijuanagrew. Soon I attracted the attention of the police. After two state convictions for marijuana distribution and cultivation, I was arrested a third time in 1989 and charged under federal law for cultivating marijuana. I pleaded guilty and was convicted.

Before sentencing, the court released me so I could prepare to go to prison, but I got scared and fled. Fifteen months later, I was arrested in Miami, Fla., and extradited to Kansas, where I received a mandatory sentence of 24 and a half years in federal prison without possibility of parole.

Turning Around

While in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kans., awaiting transfer to a federal prison where I would serve my sentence, I began to reflect. In sentencing me to over 24 years in prison, the government was saying that I was incorrigible and beyond rehabilitation. Deep down, I knew that was not true. Finally I began to take responsibility for my behavior and vowed to turn my life around.

I was sent to a medium security prison in Littleton, Colo., where many others were serving long mandatory sentences, often for nonviolent drug offenses. There I learned about Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization founded in Washington, D.C., in 1991 to abolish the excessive mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress enacted in 1986. A progressive warden permitted a small group of us inmates to form an N.A.A.C.P. chapter in prison to support F.A.M.M. Eventually we also founded a prison youth counseling program that matched at-risk teens from the community with inmates. Through such activities I found meaning, direction and purpose.

After spending 10 years in prison, I found myself suddenly released on Jan. 20, 2001, when President Bill Clinton commuted the remaining 15 years of my sentence. On the day President Clinton left office, I was freed along with 20 other low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, who had been recommended for commutations by F.A.M.M. Many of us met at a dinner sponsored by F.A.M.M. the following April to honor the pro-bono attorneys who sought our release. At that meeting, we former prisoners agreed that the best statement we could make against mandatory minimum sentences was to show that, given a second chance, we would not return to prison.

Drug-Free

I have kept in touch with most of the prisoners granted commutations. We have all completed five years of supervised release without being arrested or imprisoned. Many of us have obtained higher education, from completing law school to becoming a cosmetologist. Last spring, I graduated from Wichita State University with a master’s degree in social work.

Drug-free for six-and-a-half years, I now work at the Wichita Day Reporting Center, which provides therapeutic supervision for state parolees and county jail inmates who would otherwise have to return to prison for technical violations, such as drug use, or linger in county jails for days or months for misdemeanors. In addition to daily reporting and supervision by ankle bracelets, the program provides substance-abuse and anger-management counseling and help with finding employment and housing.

Scarcity of Treatment

Most prisons in the United States do not attempt to treat or cure addiction. Fewer than 10 percent of inmates receive the treatment services they need, according to a new study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The 2006 report notes that 95 percent of drug offenders who do not receive treatment in prison or outside upon their release relapse into drug use; 70 percent return to prison.

For the nonviolent drug offender, prison presents a chance for self-examination. The hope is that free of drugs and the lifestyle conducive to drug use, drug offenders will take responsibility for their actions and change. Permanent change, however, may not occur in prison. The streets are where former addicts must learn to overcome life’s obstacles and challenges without reverting to old behaviors. It is at this critical juncture that day reporting centers and other such programs can make a difference, providing supervision, therapy and support as former addicts try to put their lives back together. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, however, forbid the courts from considering shorter prison sentences or less costly, more effective options like drug treatment.

Research by the National Crime Information Center strongly suggests that the more time low-level, nonviolent drug offenders spend in prison, the greater the likelihood that they will return there. While incarcerated I saw many drug addicts come to prison and leave in worse shape years later. Most lost their connections to family and community. Their criminal record greatly reduced their chances of getting a good job. They developed antisocial attitudes, in part because of the belief system they adopted to survive the prison environment.

Public opinion polls show increasing support for drug treatment alternatives to mandatory prison sentences for low-level drug crimes. A landmark poll in 2002 by Peter D. Hart Research found that 56 percent of adults favor eliminating mandatory sentencing laws so that the courts can choose the appropriate sentence for each offender. There is also a growing acknowledgment that addiction is a disease, not a crime. A 2004 national survey commissioned by Faces and Voices of Recovery found that 74 percent of Americans think that current policies regarding the treatment of addicted individuals must change.

Considering Alternatives

The 110th Congress would do well to follow the lead of those states that have implemented new sentencing and parole policies for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The policies have reduced recidivism and have been well received by the public. Congress could pass The Second Chance Act (HR 1593 and S 1060), which would reduce recidivism and increase public safety by addressing the needs of people preparing to return to communities from the criminal justice system, and the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007 (HR 1424 and S 558). The latter bill provides addiction recovery insurance that would begin to provide drug treatment to the 80 percent of Americans who need it but do not receive it. How many Americans are addicted to drugs? Some 3.3 million Americans age 12 or older are classified as dependent on both alcohol and illicit drugs; another 3.6 million depend on illicit drugs but not alcohol; 15.4 million depend on alcohol but not illicit drugs, according to an estimate made in 2005 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

The 110th Congress should also reinstate parole on the federal level, ensuring that incarcerated people can receive drug treatment and other services aimed to promote their successful reintegration into society.

As one who has made the profound journey from addict to prisoner to drug counselor, I know that change is not easy, but it is possible. Were it not for an act of mercy, I would still be serving nearly 10 more years in federal prison. It is time for Congress to implement a fiscally and socially responsible sentencing policy that provides treatment, not prison, for drug-addicted nonviolent offenders. The alternative is to continue the punitive approach, which means spending more dollars for fewer positive results.

Peter Ninemire is a therapist/substance abuse counselor and a trainer/organizer for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.