The Roanoke Times
Robert Brown was on his way to see his heroin dealer. He was withdrawing and in a hurry. Not paying attention, he made an illegal turn. Blue lights flashed on behind him.
“They’re finally going to get me,” he thought.
Brown was wanted on larceny charges and an unlawful wounding charge out of Roanoke and Salem. He tried to lie about who he was, but he couldn’t fool the police.
He got locked up in the city jail in late 2007. He called his mother.
“Momma, I’m locked up,” he recalled telling her.
“Well, son, at least I know where you’re at,” she responded.
He was found guilty of his charges and sent to prison, where he would stay for eight and a half years, thinking about how he’d let himself get to that point.
It’s also where he got clean after more than 30 years of drug use. Brown, who’s now 63, just got out of prison and returned to Roanoke, where he hopes to stay clean and share his story about his struggle with opioid addiction, an epidemic shrouded in shame that is killing dozens of people every day across the country and filling prisons with those suffering from addiction.
“I had to go through some serious things, some damn things, to really get my life together, but these past several years have been the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “As far as that lifestyle, I’m done with it. You can stick a fork in it.”
‘Worst thing in my life’
Brown said he started selling various drugs — heroin and cocaine — when he was in the 11th grade at Lucy Addison High School. He posted up at Eureka Park from dawn until dusk.
For several years, he never used drugs, he said, because that would have been flushing away his profits. But eventually, temptation prevailed. One night, while he was in his mid-20s and stressed over protecting his business against police crackdowns, he rolled up his sleeve and had someone shoot heroin into his arm.
“I fell in love with it, because it was the best feeling,” Brown said. “It was also the worst thing in my life.”
Soon he lost everything as his addiction took over: money, friends, girlfriends, jobs, freedom. Brown went to prison three times — for about a decade of his life — for larceny, embezzlement and drug distribution before his 2007 lockup, according to court records.
Behind bars, he said he suffered unbearable withdrawal symptoms — sweating, nausea, tremors, pain throughout his body. He hated how the prison and jail employees used him as an example when talking to the young inmates about what could happen if they didn’t stop using drugs and engaging in criminal activity.
“They’d say, ‘You don’t want to be like Mr. Brown. Look how old he is,’ ” Brown said. “It made me mad, but they were right. I was going in and out of jail, and I never learned anything.”
When he got out each time, he fell back into his routine. He figures he almost died from heroin overdoses a couple of times.
He said he sought out treatment at a few facilities in the Roanoke Valley, but his addiction overpowered him.
“I just wasn’t ready to get clean,” he said.
Staring down eight years in prison, Brown decided to make the most of that time and get clean. Behind bars, Brown said he watched news reports on television about the increasing number of overdose deaths that triggered a national effort to fight the opioid epidemic.
In 2014, more than 28,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States. Heroin deaths tripled since 2010, with 10,500 deaths in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Virginia, at least 1,133 people died last year from opioid overdoses. The combination of fentanyl — a prescription opioid up to 100 times stronger than morphine — mixed with heroin has been the biggest contributor to the increase of fatal opioid overdoses in the state.
“I heard there is more potent stuff now, and I pray for these people because lord they are in trouble,” he said. “But, man, I don’t want to go through that again.”
Breaking the cycle
Brown moved around prisons in Virginia, participating in treatment programs along the way. His last stop was Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, where he spent his final two years learning how to reenter society.
Indian Creek is one of three correctional centers in Virginia that offer a substance abuse therapeutic community.
“The therapeutic community is based on treating substance abuse, but we also say we’re treating the whole person,” said Jim Piro, director of the therapeutic community program.
The program is broken down into four phases, and Indian Creek typically has about 1,000 men going through the program at a time, making it the largest therapeutic community in a prison in the country, Piro said. They learn how to prevent relapses, and they practice healthy social and relationship skills.
“A lot of these guys, because of their addictions, they’ll blame others for what they’ve done,” Piro said. “We teach them to take responsibility, because the only way you’re going to change your life is if you accept your decisions.”
They learn about respect, which goes both ways between the prison staff and those locked up. Employees call the inmates by their names, rather than barking “inmate” at them. Inmates are encouraged to help one another, which breaks the prison culture of people looking out for themselves.
“In a therapeutic community, you try to look after the community,” Piro said. “Because when you leave prison, you’re going to enter a community.”
By the time Brown left Indian Creek, he’d completed barber and janitor schools, and he’d learned how to get a job and how to handle his addiction.
“That program was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Indian Creek’s program has a five-year contract with Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that offers addiction treatment services. Piro said the program will track recidivism as a measure of how effective it is.
The concept of therapeutic communities has been around since the 1950s and began to emerge in some prisons three decades later. Now, many states have prisons with established therapeutic community programs. Indian Creek opened in 1994 as a therapeutic community and operated on a $20 million budget last year.
Virginia, like the rest of the country, has been wrestling with how to address the effects of the opioid epidemic, including what to do about those who are addicted to drugs and commit crimes. Last month, the Virginia Department of Corrections said Virginia, along with seven other states, will participate in a learning lab to study improved access to treatment for opioid-addicted prisoners.
Attorney General Mark Herring has said the state has made strides in prisoner re-entry efforts, although there is still more to do, particularly with treatment behind bars. He said treatment is a more cost-effective solution than repeated imprisonment.
“If someone is incarcerated because they were supporting a drug habit, getting treatment addresses the underlying problem and may prevent the person from re-offending,” he said in May while visiting Roanoke’s Bradley Free Clinic to learn about opioid treatment programs.
Research shows that, for those in prison, therapeutic communities exhibit the strongest and most consistent reductions in drug relapse and recidivism. Experts who research drug treatment administered by the criminal justice system also cite medication-assisted therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy as other promising approaches to treating inmates.
Therapeutic communities can also exist outside a prison setting, such as addiction recovery homes.
“It’s been well-known for decades that the highest concentration of people with serious substance abuse disorders are in the justice systems,” said Faye Taxman, professor of criminology at George Mason University. “Drug treatment services are becoming more important to cutting crime.”
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 65 percent of the U.S. prison population in 2010 met the medical criteria for drug or alcohol addiction, yet less than 11 percent received treatment.
“Basically, any service you provide to an inmate is going to be useful,” said June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University. “But there’s still this reaction from the public that we don’t want to coddle people, but punish them. But most of these people are not bad people, but sick people who have not been treated.”
It’s unknown what kind of effect the Trump administration will have on the opioid epidemic and criminal justice system.
“The administration has said it wants to do something about opioids, but it’s unclear right now,” Taxman said.
Brown got out of prison Jan. 4. His first stop: his parents’ graves.
They both died while he was in prison. He blames himself for his mother’s death, because he saw how much his addiction hurt her. He knelt by their graves and told them he was going to get his life back together.
“If my mom could only see me now, I know she’d be proud of me,” he said.
After spending most of his life addicted to and dealing drugs, Brown has few possessions and little money. The support of his family has been invaluable.
“I made him a promise that as long as he stays straight, I’ll try and help him in any way I can,” said one of his brothers, Willie Brown, who lives in Roanoke.
Robert Brown works part-time at a Rescue Mission thrift store through a Goodwill Industries of the Valleys program that helps senior citizens get work. It’s not a lot of money compared to what he used to make selling drugs, but he said he’s proud to make an honest living. He credits agencies such as Total Action for Progress with helping his re-entry into the community by linking him up with resources for clothes and job options.
On a weekday morning at the thrift store, Brown stocked shelves with plates, mugs, candles and trinkets. A woman who recognized him paused from her shopping to ask where he’s been. He told her about his recent release from prison and playing drums in a band with friends.
“God is good,” she said, hugging him.
He’s saving his paychecks to pay off more than $4,000 in court fines and costs, and he puts money toward buying a house of his own. When free items are available at the thrift store, he takes them. For now, he’s living with another of his brothers.
He said he goes to narcotics recovery meetings to cope with his addiction. Otherwise, he said, his health is generally fine for a man his age.
“People say the odds are against me, that as a former heavy user, it’s just a matter of time that I’ll go back to it,” Brown said. “But I’m telling you, I’m done with that.”
Willie Brown said he believes his brother this time.
“It’s just been so wonderful to have him back,” he said.