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First Place Winner - Justice Project Essay Contest

First Place

Essay by Susan M. Lemere

Carlos is lucky. Although he was arrested for drug possession, he is not going to jail. Instead, he has struck a deal. He will get probation, drug court, supervision and monitoring with top-notch addiction treatment, giving Carlos the best possible chance to succeed.

This is how Carlos and I meet. I have been hired to run treatment groups for people like Carlos. Although I’m a licensed therapist with many years of experience, I now undergo training in criminal justice-specific, evidence-based group treatment.

The training I receive in how to teach risk reduction skills is straightforward, and the group manual I am to follow is even more so. It contains a script I am expected to read from with specific wording for how to greet group members and how to explain rules and confidentiality. Research shows that if I follow the script and Carlos and his cohorts are sufficiently motivated to learn, they are likely to stay out of further trouble.


Carlos is one of eight people in my group. He is tall, lanky and brown-skinned and doesn’t make eye contact with me. I greet my group that first morning in the prescribed manner. They are, in corrections lingo, “compliant” throughout our first group, which is to say they are silent except when asked a question directly. Then they give the shortest, most economic answer possible.

I feel a little foolish reading verbatim from a script. As a longtime group treatment enthusiast, it’s not what I’m used to, but then, I don’t want to risk improvising. If one or more of them commits a crime tonight, how will I know for sure that it isn’t caused by my deviation from the manual?


Session two: I collect my group members from the community corrections lobby. As we walk to the group room, an animated discussion is going on which involves Carlos. He is frustrated, as his efforts to find a job are apparently not going well. So many of his cohorts chime in at once that I can’t distinguish one comment form another.

But then we sit down around the group room table, and silence falls again. The room is like a balloon losing air, the faces all wooden.

“Good morning,” I read from my script. “Who would like to share their practice work from last session?”


Session 3: The liveliness from the hall, which is equal to if not surpassing the previous session’s, continues a little longer as we congregate around the table. I listen to a brief discussion about a group member’s interaction with his probation officer, and for a minute I forget my role.

“How are we doing today?” I ask, which is not from the manual.

“Can’t talk about it in here,” Carlos answers.

There are some chuckles from around the room.

I look around. Some of them will meet my eyes, but most won’t. I sigh, turning back to the manual.


Several sessions later, Carlos blurts out, “I got to find work.” His voice sounds angry, but in his eyes, he looks distant and sad. He looks like a person who is running out of fight.
I deviate from the curriculum, deciding that this topic, raised by my most withdrawn participant, is priority. I promise myself I’ll keep this detour short.

“What steps have you taken to try to find work?” I ask.

It turns out that he’s taken a lot of them. Job fairs. Unemployment center. Craigslist. Door-to-door. Online job listings.

His difficulty finding employment doesn’t really surprise me. So many people I know of all educational and work backgrounds are looking for jobs.

But then Carlos elaborates, painting a picture for me of what he is really up against. And during his pauses, other group members add their experiences.

Carlos lives in a rural area, but because of his possession charge, he automatically lost his driver’s license, so getting to and from prospective jobs is a problem. He has a high school diploma, but no college. He also, of course, has a criminal record. His probation conditions stipulate that he has to find and maintain employment in order to graduate from drug court. However, his drug court conditions stipulate that he must participate in my treatment group twice a week, plus meet regularly with probation and the drug court team, plus participate in random drug screens on same-day notice. A prospective employer would have to: 1) be close enough to walk or bike to or be willing to provide transportation, 2) be open to hiring someone without a college education who has a criminal record, 3) provide a work schedule in which two mornings a week are unavailable, and 4) understand that he might need to leave work suddenly for unpredictable lengths of time on a fairly regular basis.

Meanwhile, he has no income. He owes probation fees, and they are racking up. If he doesn’t pay soon, this by itself could land him behind bars.


Session 16 begins with no Carlos. He’s in jail on a new charge. A group member says it’s a shame he messed up after making it halfway through group, but another member sees it differently. “He’s better off just doing his time and wrapping his sentence. It’s less of a set-up that way.”


In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine defined addiction as “a brain disease.” It may be that, but it is other things as well.

Some may say it was Carlos’ decision whether or not to succeed. If you don’t understand all the barriers between Carlos and employment, you might even call him lazy. As for the potential roles of racism and poverty in both the development of his substance abuse and the barriers to his treatment and recovery, we can never know, but we can certainly speculate.

It’s too bad about Carlos, isn’t it? The wasted opportunity? How he squandered the chance to stay out of jail?

Guess he just never realized how lucky he was.

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