Surgeon General’s Brother: How Prison Perpetuates Addiction

Throwing drug addicts in jail might solve some things, but it definitely doesn’t solve addiction itself, which is what drives the vast majority of drug addicts in jail for nonviolent, drug-related offenses.

Long story short, criminalizing addicts keeps them addicts. It’s true that many jails and prisons offer some form of therapy for inmates, but dig a little and you’ll see that while offered, it doesn’t always happen. Plus, just being frank, a large portion of such programs simply doesn’t work.

For countless jailed addicts, imprisonment for drug-related offenses simply creates a cycle of failure. The addict uses/buys/sells, gets caught, gets arrested, goes to jail, gets out, has no means, and turns back to his or her drug of choice. Repeat. According to New Scientist, “About half of the nation’s 2.2 million jail inmates meet clinical criteria for drug or alcohol dependence, while the majority of state or federal inmates regularly used drugs prior to their incarceration.” The picture gets bleaker once you add in the extremely high recidivism rates; more than three quarters of drug offenders released from jail return to jail for drug-related charges within five years of getting out.

Many addicts who are imprisoned feel hopeless upon release. Here’s some proof in the form of a blog from Scientific American. It tells the stories of a handful of addicts who have had zero chance of recovery due to the criminal justice system’s poor handling of addicted inmates. This article you are reading is going to focus, though, on one man’s story. His name is Phillip Adams.

Mr. Phillip Adams – Part One

Growing up in rural Mechanicsville, Maryland, young Phillip Adams wrote poetry, sang, and could draw pretty well. Then around high school, Phillip began to develop what his sister LaToya Adams believes was/is depression. She “…said it was clear in photos from that time. Phillip stopped smiling as he transitioned from middle to high school,” as quoted from STAT News. His mother attempted to get Phillip help, but to no avail.

Partying with alcohol turned into partying with Vicodin, which turned into a Percocet addiction. The young artist wound up in a juvenile detention center in Baltimore where he earned his GED. He returned home for a small while, but in 2002 the real troubles began.

Phillip’s first arrest was for marijuana possession. He served no hard time. Next was the sale of crack cocaine, a few years down the road, for which he served eighteen months hard time. He entered a guilty plea in March of 2006, the same month Phillip began to write his letters to the judge(s) assigned his case(s). That first one consisted of him asking for probation. Again according to STAT, in this first letter, Phillip said that “…the last thing I would ever do in this world is something to violate that probation and put me back here.” His jail sentence began in October of 2006.

Once Phillip’s sentence began, he asked the court to be placed in a drug treatment program. At that time, he said he asked “not because I felt I needed it, but to show my willingness to comply and progress while I’m here.” For the next few years, Phillip landed in jail multiple times, returning home between each stint to a family that was willing to help him, time and time again. A handful of parole violations and failures to appear in court later, and it was 2009. Phillip had been in and out of jail. Something changed inside of him.

Things didn’t improve though.

In ’09, Phillip received an addiction assessment, qualified for a 28-day residential substance abuse therapy program, but couldn’t attend due to an upcoming court date. By the time Phillip went to court, the spot in the program had been filled. This time around, he wasn’t just trying to comply and progress, which for many law enforcement officials is more than enough. This time around, Phillip wanted to change, to become sober.

The day following his initial qualification for the 28-day program, Phillip informed the court of how he had been regularly attending both Narcotics Anonymous meetings and in-jail counseling, and had even read the handbook. In a letter written around this time, Phillip wrote, “I know who I am and I know my life deserves better than what I’ve given it.” These sound like the words of someone who really wants to change, not just comply.

Still, Phillip had to wait another two years before he was cleared to enter into a court-provided treatment program. However, a differentcourthouse stopped him from going due to an issue with Phillip’s probation. His lawyer filed a motion to dismiss this issue, but to no avail.

From another letter written around this time: “Bluntly, in so many ways, I’m being told… it’s being said… it’s better for me to just sit in the back of the jail and not work or get treatment, knowing I need it and meet the qualifications for it. Please see me as a person, same as you and not a file number.”

Mr. Phillip Adams – Part Two

It’s currently 2018, and Phillip is still in jail, and he’s still writing letters to judges asking for treatment. Over the course of the last decade or so, many judges have seen Phillip’s lengthy rap sheet and not even thought about the so-called ‘lenient’ decision of placing him in treatment. Even when not in jail, for the last ten years Phillip has tried multiple times to enter into treatment. Sometimes it was mandated by his parole officer, but the means justify the ends here. At least they would have, if he were to have been able to get in. Few options in the Mechanicsville area exist, and it’s simply expensive.

In a letter last month written to STAT News, (linked above), Phillip wrote, “My substance abuse has been the key factor for my history of incarcerations and I’m very tired of the road I have been on with my drug use.” His words basically just kept getting more and more clear-cut.

Phillip is now 38 years old. His release date is set for 2023. He’s serving a bid for burglary and breaking and entering. This sentence came just two years after charges of theft, forgery and credit card fraud. Phillip has told his sister LaToya that 99% of him crimes are attributable to his drug use. The Adams family continues today to try and understand that Phillip is not a bad person, but rather a good person with a bad addiction.

Phillip’s Brother, the Surgeon General

One of Phillip’s three siblings is Dr. Jerome Adams, the current U.S. surgeon general. Jerome was an honor roll student and track star in high school, received a multitude of scholarships to colleges, including medical schools, became the health commissioner of Indiana, and currently serves as the nation’s doctor, the highest level a doctor can reach in America.

Phillip is five years younger than Jerome. It’s been twenty years that Phillip has been a drug addict. It’s been about six months that Jerome has been the surgeon general of our nation. Last month, Surgeon General Jerome Adams addressed his brother’s situation in a September interview, his first public acknowledgement of Phillip: “One of the most frustrating things is being surgeon general of the United States and feeling like you can’t help your own brother.”

So, not only does our surgeon general have a very personal tie to the opioid crisis which currently kills more Americans everyday than car crashes, but our surgeon general also understands firsthand the seemingly endless barricades preventing the addicted & incarcerated from getting treatment.

Slowly but surely it seems the American public is beginning to shift its view of addiction, from one of disgust to one of understanding. Still, the progress is not smooth, especially for addicted inmates, and perhaps especiallyfor African-Americans. (It should be noted here, in case you the reader are unaware, that the Adams are an African-American family.) In the same aforementioned interview, Jerome summed this point up perfectly in one long and strong sentence:

“I’ve watched my brother over and over and over again come out of incarceration with the best of intentions, determined that this is the time things are going to be different, and then he goes back to a neighborhood where the people who were selling him the drugs are still around and the bad elements are still around, and he can’t get a job, or he gets a job that’s paying minimum wage and he can’t even afford the transportation back and forth to the job, and ultimately he ends up in a situation where he throws his hands up and says, ‘Why am I even trying?’”

You might be asking why Jerome didn’t help Phillip more. Well, Jerome was starting college when Phillip was starting high school, which is when the addiction began. Jerome was living in Indiana attending medical school when legal trouble began for Phillip. The brothers’ relationship was tense due to Phillip only contacting Jerome when he was in a jam and needed help. The surgeon general addressed his sorrow regarding this, stating, “In hindsight, I could have and should have been a little bit more sympathetic and understood that he had a chronic disease.”

It’s not hard to understand why Jerome didn’t do everything he could.

The Cycle in Three Quotes

Michael Botticelli, former leader of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and current executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center:“Marching down the jail-prison path can set people up for lifelong failure.”

Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and health sciences, Northeastern University:“We take people with a health problem and we throw them in a place where they’re not receiving evidence-based help, then those folks are released into the community with little support and no linkage to programs.”

Maia Szalavitz, writer for The Guardian US:American drug policymakers expect fears and harsh consequences – like arrest and incarceration – to stop addicts… from using illegal drugs. Instead, to begin addressing America’s opioid epidemic, we need to recognize addiction as the specific type of brain health issue it really is: a learning disorder – specifically, one characterized by failure to learn well from punishment.”

In Conclusion

The last part of that last quote is a killer. The law says to punish addicts for possessing and/or using illegal drugs, but addiction is literally characterized by an inability to stop using drugs, regardless of the level of punishment. Just close your eyes for a second and think: What would help a heroin addict more… jail time and some type of half-baked prison system treatment program (maybe), or a 30-day program that includes detox and mental stabilization? It’s a no-brainer.

It’s Jerome’s belief that drug addicts who get arrested should be given a choice between treatment and jail. Obviously the vast majority would choose treatment. Of course the funding/resources aren’t there yet, but considering over a quarter of prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders, perhaps some reallocation is in order.