NA-supported Recovery behind the Walls (William White, Chris Budnick, and Boyd Pickard)*
For the past 35 years, the United States has been involved in what many consider to be failed efforts to incarcerate its way out of its addiction problem. The U.S. prison population has grown from 198,061 in 1971 to more than 1.5 million in 2013. More than 600,000 incarcerated men and women are released back into local communities each year, a significant portion with histories of alcohol- and other drug-related problems. High rates of recidivism have increased interest in treatment and recovery support services during incarceration and community re-entry. There is a long history of recovery mutual aid fellowships within the U.S. prison system, but such resources have become more important and more vibrant in tandem with the recent growth in the prison population.
In scanning the growth of addiction recovery support resources within U.S. prisons, the authors sought a setting we could profile that would illustrate the vibrancy of this growing recovery advocacy and support movement. For this purpose, we have chosen the Hole in the Wall Group of Narcotics Anonymous at Oregon State Penitentiary. We gratefully acknowledge the support of J. B., the Group Secretary of the Hole in the Wall Group, for his assistance in assembling the history of this group and the stories of some of its members.
The Hole in the Wall Group is an all-volunteer, inmate-run activities club of addicts helping addicts. The Hole in the Wall Group was established by the inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary in 1988. Since that time The Group has expanded to include five NA-based recovery meetings, which collectively meet more than 150 times per year. The meetings span a newcomers meeting, a general meeting, a Twelve Step book study meeting, and a meeting to prepare members to become NA sponsors.
During the 27 years of its history, the Hole in the Wall Group has maintained a very strong community of long-term members as well as hundreds of short-term prisoners. Many current and released members have been involved for ten or more years and provide Sponsorship and advice to the younger members just beginning recovery.
The Hole in the Wall Group is the first contact many addicts have with the Steps, Traditions, and larger community of Narcotics Anonymous. The Group maintains a well-stocked library containing all available NA materials for loan or purchase and provides welcome and clean time certificates and coins and a quarterly Newsletter through which members express their experiences in recovery.
Two of the authors who were able to meet with leaders of the Hole in the Wall Group left deeply inspired. What we found most striking was the Group’s high level of organization, their infectious excitement about recovery, their collaboration with prison officials to expand their recovery support activities, their adherence to NA traditions, their close connection to NA members outside the prison, and their continued support of members who have returned to the community.
We invited members of the Hole in the Wall Group to offer their own written reflections on what their recovery and participation in the Hole in the Wall Group had meant to them. Their responses, excerpts of which are presented below, provide a way to carry the voices of recovery beyond the prison walls. One excerpt suggests that a “recovery revolution” is unfolding behind the walls of Oregon State Penitentiary. We agree and feel that the spread of this revolution throughout the U.S. prison system will bring hope to many whose lives have been marked for too long by a lack of such hope.
I am currently the leader of the Hole in the Wall Group of Narcotics Anonymous here at the Oregon State Penitentiary. My story starts in a childhood filled with physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. I was around twelve years old when I was first introduced to drugs and drinking. It was the first time in my life where I wasn’t afraid. The more I got high, the more comfortable I felt around other people. I thought I had found friends and people who liked me. My whole life was all about the getting and using more drugs. I started getting in trouble from age 12-13.
It wasn’t until I found myself in the rooms of Recovery here at OSP that I found that all of those years that I thought I was so different, that no one could understand how I felt. As I sat and listened to the other men in the room speak of their own stories I heard my own story over and over again. I found that I wasn’t alone or so different than others. The more I got involved in the groups, the more my community of support grew until I felt for the first time that I wasn’t an outsider. As I began to help others by sharing what had been freely given to me, I felt the healing taking place in my life. I was learning a better way to carry the damage that had haunted my life for so long. I found that I can’t change my past, but I can leave it behind and become an active participant in my own life and in my Recovery as I move forward.
If I could share anything with the people outside of these walls it would be that I have found more freedom inside a maximum security prison than I ever knew in the “free” world. I learned how to connect with others without feeling like I was sacrificing myself to do it. I see my brothers from my Recovery group all throughout the day. As I go about my day it feels good to see these men, knowing we all are trying to find a new way to live without drugs and learning to be able to feel the feelings as they come up for us and not let them derail our lives. At least this has been true for me.
What recovery means to me is that I found my sanity. I found out that I can be active in my own life instead of standing on the side of the road and watch it go by. I have felt broken and uncomfortable in my own skin for so long that I am often surprised by how I feel throughout my day, clean of mind and comfortable with who I am and what I am doing in each moment. I only hope that others can find this place of peace for their own lives.
Gratefully, Your brother in Recovery.
The Hole in the Wall Group
I have been a part of the Hole in the Wall Group for 17 years, for the first 3 years as an inmate and now as a facilitator.
Before coming to my first meeting I was doing the same things I had done on the streets in prison, and I really had no want to do anything different. After my first meeting, I was seeing something in the guys who were going. After a few meetings I liked what I was seeing and wanted to have the same thing. As time went on I began to see that I too could have a different life and that if I did the work my life would change for the better. Seventeen years later I am living proof that those meetings and the groups in OSP helped to change my life.
I would like people outside to know that there is a group inside prison that is changing people’s lives and it is NA–that every day these meetings are giving people hope for a better life. This group helps me daily by keeping focused on my recovery and doing the next right thing and keeping my thoughts off of my old ways and behavior.
Recovery is the essence of my life. Without it I would not have the life I have today. I have an unshakable faith in this program. I know 100% that without it my life would be just as chaotic as it was before and I would be doing all the same things I had done in the past. But due to this program I am now a productive member of society, I own my own business and my life is 100% different today. I owe everything to the group of Narcotics Anonymous.
Outside (community) GSR,
The Hole in the Wall Group
I am currently incarcerated at Oregon State Penitentiary. I have lost track of how many times I have been in prison, more than five times, less than ten, yet I am not really sure.
Every time I came to prison was because of drugs. I am an addict. I had some exposure to NA during several incarcerations, but still harbored reservations about my addiction. I thought I could still use and control my drug use and not let anyone know. I was sooo wrong. During my last time out in the community, after a brief time of recovery and regular meeting attendance, working, being honest with myself, my ex-wife, children, family, and everyone who believed in me. I relapsed because I thought I could still use. Several months later, I killed someone during a high speed chase under the influence of meth while running from the scene. I was sentenced to a very long time in prison; that was 12/13/1996. I got here at Oregon State Penitentiary in the summer of 1997 and joined the NA Hole in the Wall Group and started regular meeting attendance because I knew NA worked. I became of service a short time after. I shared openly in meetings, asked for help, listened, read literature, started working the steps, and sponsoring others. This program has given me my life back. It has led me back to my higher power, who I choose to call God. I have taken a fearless and moral inventory and shared it. I have forgiven myself, yet have not forgotten where my drug addiction takes me. I work on being a better person each day. I have made amends to those I have harmed, but was not forgiven by all. I understand that and use it to help me grow into a better person each day by doing the next right thing. I continue to take my personal inventory and when I am wrong I promptly admit it. I seek through prayer several times a day to improve my conscious contact with God, for the knowledge of His will for me and the power to carry it out, which grows stronger each day in my life. It’s truly a miracle. Then, because of this spiritual awakening in my life, I try to carry the message to all addicts and practice these principles of the program in my life. I have truly been blessed by Narcotics Anonymous and the Hole in the Wall Group. This Group has changed my life, and it changes the lives of all who apply the program. We truly have a Recovery Revolution happening and I am blessed to be part of it.
Because of this group, I have my family back in my life, a relationship with God, numerous years clean, a release date, several college degrees, learned how to hold down a job, a hobby, my health, and I get to help others. I love my life today and who I have become.
The thing I want people to know about our group is that there are lots of men here working to change their lives, sharing honestly, helping others do the same (and never return to prison)–becoming responsible, productive fathers, husband, brothers, sons, neighbors, employees, and servants to others. We invite anyone in our area to come to a meeting here.
Recovery means unconditional love, freedom, honesty, integrity forgiveness, acceptance, surrender, and service to all, no matter where you are at in your life. Even here inside the walls.
The Hole in the wall Group
Our NA Groups and club offer a safe place in an environment (prison), which for the most part is an unfriendly place. Although you can avoid most situations, our meetings provide a place to learn and share what is going on in your recovery. If I had not joined this group, I would never have addressed my addiction and how to stay clean. In this group I have met people with the same problems and goals, staying clean and learning the skills to break the chain of addiction.
The Hole in the Wall Group
The Hole in the Wall Group Here at OSP is a strong group because we come together as men who have the same problem. That problem is addiction. When we meet, we all are NA brothers, so nothing else matters. Everything else is put to the side.
Without this group and the brothers in it, I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rough times that have been thrown my way. My NA brothers give me encouragement through the weeks and the outside members have helped me with good advice and sponsorship.
My recovery means that I can know that when times get tough I have the ability to survive and weather any storm without getting high. I can also show other that if I can do it, so can they. No matter how others around me are doing in their recovery, my recovery is left up to me. I’ll get from my recovery what I put into it.
A letter I got yesterday truly brought a challenge to the strength of my recovery. I lost a family member on February 14. When I received the news I just wanted to explode on someone and use drugs to kill the pain. But I touched my coin and that gave me the strength to say the serenity prayer.
Being part of the Hole in the Wall Group has given me a new view of NA because I gave this a go once before and was let down. When this happened I vowed never to step foot in a meeting again. But because of this group and my NA brothers here, I’ve given it a second chance. By giving it a second chance I’ve become a completely different person who puts his recovery first and his pride to the side.
Member, The Hole in the Wall Group
The Hole in the Wall Group has helped me to FEEL COMFORTABLE enough to be honest with myself.
I would want others to know that before now (I’m 45 years old) I could never, or would never, admit to my problem, issues, or my addiction. And I 100% believe that coming to prison SAVED MY LIFE. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have died or been killed. “I was lost but now I’m found.” Isn’t that how Amazing Grace goes? Whatever your definition of “wretch,” I’m sure it’s negative, and, yes, it applied/applies to me. Hopefully, now with patience, effort and desire for understanding and peace, I can work towards becoming the man I saw myself being, when I was a kid. I truly wish to “learn the lesson” I’m here to learn.
Member, The Hole in the Wall Group
The following pieces were written earlier by members of the Hole in the Wall Group.
R. T. (R.T. has been out of prison for five years, is off of parole, and able to return to attend Hole in the Wall Meetings).
Hello, I’m an addict named R.T.! In 2005, I was serving a LIFE sentence in the Oregon State Penitentiary. I was 25 years in and 3 weeks from being considered for parole for the 11th time when I went to the hole for my last dirty UA. I was convicted of a drug-related homicide and still shooting dope after 25 years. I was a lost soul and couldn’t find my way out of the darkness of my disease. I began to consider suicide as my only way out.
I have a friend who was an addict like me who changed his life in the Hole in the Wall Group of Narcotics Anonymous. He invited me to my first NA meeting and told me about the Twelve Steps. And he told me that I never have to use again. I immersed myself into the NA program, working the steps and being of service and the Miracle of Recovery blossomed in my life.
Hope had replaced hopelessness in my life and I was granted parole after 4 years in the program.
The Hole in the Wall Group of Narcotics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps gave me the tools I needed to learn to live a new way of life and for that I am forever grateful.
Today I am off parole and living my life as an example of change in the free community. I have been out of prison for 5 years now and use the tools that I’ve learned through the Twelve Steps to guide me in all aspects of my daily recovery. Recovery for me doesn’t end in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous, today I get to recover in all areas of my life. Personal relationships, working relationships and being of service in my community: the Twelve Steps of Narcotics Anonymous have helped me to become a better human being and for that I am grateful.
The Hole in the Wall Group in OSP is a place where miracles happen. There is a Recovery Revolution taking place in the Oregon State Penitentiary. That Group saved my life!
Former Secretary (2007-2010)
Hello, I hope you had a great year. Mine was Productive. I am working the NA program daily and one year closer to my release. I have 5 year’s clean and it is a big milestone for me. I doubt that I have ever been that long clean. Yes, my sobriety is most important to me, especially with my release date coming up fast. I know if I want any future I need the NA program and all who are in recovery to keep me from returning to active addiction. I can never be complacent with my sobriety again. If I use, I know with certainty my future will be jail, institutions, or worse, death. I am worth more than that. I am clean and I am not giving that up for anything. I know this is a cliché, recovery has saved me from myself; it has changed my life. This program has shown me how to live life on life’s terms. Is it easy? No. There are days that I think if I got high I just might not have to deal with all the pain of my past and how much I damaged my future going forward. There is only one way for me today, forward, not using even if I tell myself that is how I can deal with day-to-day struggles. It does not work, and I have tried it. Dealing with life as it comes is the best way. I refuse to go back to my addiction, no matter how bad I hurt inside or how much I would like the tough stuff in life to disappear. I refuse to create more damage to my life. Honesty with my pain is important, because it doesn’t go away unless you deal with it. I give it up to my Higher Power daily. I found that when you do it this way, one day at a time, you finally wake up and life is not that bad. Life is pretty good. I am in prison and it might sound strange to someone that hasn’t been here-I pray that you never are here-but my future has much more to offer me than before I truly surrendered to the program. When I look in the mirror I see in my eyes someone different than the person I was 5 years ago. It is the program and the work I have put into it that has made the difference.
Member, in Service
W. N. (W.N. was released in July 2012, is living in California, and remains in communication with the Hole in the Wall Group.)
I remember when I quit using and was struggling to stay committed to the choices I had made, it seemed like an uphill battle all the way. As the years passed and the constant cravings turned toward dreams and memories, staying clean seemed to get a little easier. Now days when I wake up, I make a conscious choice not to use no matter what, living life on life’s terms for better or worse.
At one point, I remember telling myself that I no longer needed to be in recovery. I had a handle on my addictions and I would never use anything ever again. In short, I felt I was pretty much cured. As time has a way of revealing, nothing could have been further from the truth. After a short hiatus from the weekly meetings and the bonds that are formed between individuals who have traveled the same road, I found myself once again back in meetings, and this time, not just regular meetings but, book study groups, a sponsorship program, and every meeting I could possibly attend. I didn’t stop there either. I became heavily involved in service work on many levels. In doing so, I came to realize that I was still lacking in the things that Narcotics Anonymous offered. As my service work grew so did my spirituality.
One important lesson that I learned is that when in service to others, I had to put aside character defects that I still held on to. I believe that I need to hold myself to an even higher standard when I represent so many other people. A good friend and mentor, Ricky T., once told me that if I became involved in service work, it would change my life forever. He was right. I have never examined my own life or its many defects of character as I have since taking on these responsibilities.
Complacency cannot be an option in my life from now until death. In this environment a perception can be just as costly as an actual blunder. I find that asking my Higher Power for guidance is of great help to me. Continually trying to do the next right thing is sometimes extremely hard. Being kind, courteous, and polite to others every day is also a challenge. However, by spiritually challenging myself day in and day out, I know I am growing into the human being that I want to become.
I hope everyone’s holidays were the very best they could be. I want to say thank you to the Hole In The Wall group and all of its members for always being there for me. Also, thank you to all of our outside guests and sponsors for continually giving of themselves.
*William White is Emeritus Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems; Chris Budnick is the Vice President of Programs for The Healing Place of Wake County, Founding Board Chair for Recovery Communities of North Carolina, and is an Adjunct Faculty member with the North Carolina State University Department of Social Work; and Boyd Pickard is a Research Associate at the Illinois Addiction Studies Archives.