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Creating Change and Acknowledging Failure

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Date: December 04, 2023
Categories: Criminal Justice, Recovery

Tyler’s Journey Through the Criminal Legal System

“He’s dead, David. He’s dead. He’s dead.”

Those frantic, dreadful words echoed through my mind, on repeat.

‘David’—that is me. ‘He’—that’s my friend, Tyler. Or I should say ‘was,’ as of September 5, 2023.

Tyler and I were incarcerated in state prison together between 2011 and 2013 for similar non-violent, drug-related charges. Our friendship consisted of cutting grass, playing cards, drinking instant coffee, munching on ramen, and listening to John Mayer and Dave Matthews. During these two years, our similar life circumstances, musical interests, and severe substance use issues resulted in a bond that would continue even after our paths diverged—with Tyler’s (back) into chaos and mine through a narrow escape toward purpose and healing. My recovery and hard work gave me an opportunity to finish my bachelor’s degree, complete my Master’s, and even gain clearance and employment in the federal government. Despite this divergence, Tyler and I wanted the same thing—a family, a career, economic stability; to do good and be good people—but we also needed all the help we could get.

The call came from Tyler’s sister, Hannah, who had been doing her best to prevent the same fate that took her older sibling and Tyler’s younger brother, Zane—a U.S Combat Veteran who passed away from fentanyl poisoning over five years ago. Throughout Tyler’s struggles, Hannah was there for Tyler when the world had given up on him, always showing him the love, compassion, and support he so desperately needed. She loved him unconditionally and never gave up on him despite the turmoil that his substance use brought upon their family. “I can’t lose Tyler, too,” Hannah told me on more than one occasion.

Over the past several years, Hannah, Tyler, and I have been in regular communication, attempting to find a quality recovery housing and support system that would remove Tyler from the environment he was in. As we know that the risk of overdose is over 50 times higher (PDF | 16.3 MB) during the first two weeks after release from incarceration when compared to the general public, I secured Tyler a state-funded scholarship at the recovery housing program that saved my life, sparked my recovery, and enabled me to escape the clutches of both substance use and the criminal legal system almost 10 years ago. However, while that program would have provided Tyler with access to quality services that were far beyond his means, it also happened to be in a neighboring state. So, then came the vain attempts to transfer Tyler’s probation—the first step needed in accessing a life-saving recovery support system and safe, stable housing.

The first transfer attempt came when Tyler’s probation mandated him to a list of state-sanctioned recovery housing programs. Being forced to stay in the area, Tyler returned to using opioids and methamphetamine while waiting for a bed and ended up on the streets before finally being detained on a warrant later that year. Even prior to his release, I told Tyler’s previous probation officer that he would most likely die if he couldn’t leave the state to go to the recovery program. But thankfully Tyler didn’t die…that time.

Fast forward to late May 2023, when I received the following text from Tyler (yes, you can text from jail these days): “Hey man, this is Tyler. I am finally locked up again and thank God. I was on the run for over a year and am now in county jail and finally starting to feel better. It looks like I will be in here for another few months and will have one last probation to deal with when I get out. I am not being mandated to any type of program, so really hoping you can help me with that program in Florida again. I know it didn’t work out last time, but I’m just so tired of this. I know I need to get out of the area and need all the help I can get. I just want to get well and be there for my family.”

The day after I received that text, I was on the phone with Tyler’s new probation officer. She genuinely cared about his wellbeing and was kind enough to take the time to talk with me about Tyler’s situation. She was willing to do whatever she could within the confines of the system to get Tyler the help he so desperately needed. I was optimistic and excited for Tyler after that call—and while she was unable to approve his attendance at an out-of-state program, she was more than happy to submit a transfer request through the interstate compact program between the states’ Departments of Correction. She warned me that it was a strict process and at the discretion of the receiving state, but there also was a sense of optimism between us due to Tyler’s unique and dire circumstances—a scholarship and stable housing in the context of zero resources and a family that loved but couldn’t help him in his home state, and a debilitating polysubstance use disorder to cap it all off.

There is no way they could deny this, I remember thinking as I wrapped up the “Reason to Live in Another State” section in Tyler’s transfer request. If I could sum this section up in a few short words, it could best be described as his “Reason to Not Die in This One.” My optimism grew. Recovery is in his reach, I thought to myself.

“I’m excited for a fresh start! I’m starting to realize that I don’t have to live my life in & out of jails, prisons, etc. It’s almost like I had just accepted my life was going to be miserable and in and out of institutions, etc. You’re the best dude. Thank you and can’t wait for everyone to see me doing good out there.” But Tyler’s unique and dire circumstances weren’t enough, and we were notified of his first denial just a month before his release.

What?! Maybe he will die, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t give up on Tyler because there were people that didn’t give up on me. After numerous calls, emails, and texts, we resubmitted his transfer request—this time with a letter from the recovery housing program advocating on Tyler’s behalf and reiterating the uniqueness of his scholarship. Each day ticked away as we waited, hoped, and prayed for some good news. His release date came and went, and what should have been an exciting day for Tyler, Hannah, and their family turned to uncertainty and confusion. Tyler was released directly to the streets without an ID, phone, or money. Panic set in as Hannah desperately tried to get ahold of him. Two hours turned into twenty-four. “We don’t know where Tyler is, David.”

Twenty-four turned into forty-eight. Ring, ring, ring. The day after receiving the call that Tyler had passed, I received the following text from Tyler’s probation officer: “Transfer was denied, and he has not reported.”

Denied the first week of August. Released the third day of September. Dead two days later. Denied again the day after he died. For even in death, the system failed him.

So why are people being denied solutions? Are there effective alternatives?

Data suggests there are a multitude of alternatives to incarceration proven to lower recidivism and promote recovery. We know that peer support in legal settings is an incredibly effective strategy (PDF | 6.3 MB). We know that people who are experiencing severe challenges related to mental health or substance use will almost always see greater success with quality clinical treatment, safe and stable housing, and appropriate medication management when compared to only punitive measures like incarceration and probation.

The GAINS Center provides a great deal of resources that can help, such as Best Practices for Successful Reentry from Criminal Justice Settings for People Living with Mental Health Conditions and/or Substance Use Disorders (PDF | 16.3 MB).

While creating a system that approves requests to complete out-of-state treatment and recovery programs is a critical first step, we truly need one in which every court and correctional program/facility across the nation works directly with these life-saving programs and facilitates transfer immediately upon release no matter of the location. At the heart of it, we need a system that cares for and supports people. The simplest of solutions deprived a genuinely good person with a debilitating disease from a chance to live and rebuild his life. If the system provided effective discharge planning such as linkages to treatment and recovery support services—and ensured easy access to both in and out-of-state options—I believe my friend would still be alive.

A combination of hard work, privilege, and pure luck has afforded me with the opportunity to work with the same systems that have let down those we love. Unfortunately, my story is the exception and Tyler’s is the rule.

SAMHSA’s Office of Recovery is working to find solutions and make changes. We must also continue to work with Justices and Administrators of Courts to ensure that these strategies and compassion-driven solutions are seen and utilized by the local, state, and federal systems that people like Tyler encounter. And until they do, I will continue to speak. For Tyler.