By: Marty Strauss (’23)
Substance use disorder is a widespread yet incredibly personal hardship. It affects countless people across the world, but in many different ways along lines such as race and class, and along varying bonds of family and friendship. Recovery, it follows, is also a deeply personal endeavor. But in prison, the state often seems more concerned with checking a box of “treatment” than with making room for the personal nuances of real recovery.
Rachel Schwarz and I saw this reticence up close in the case of a recent PLAP client who we’ll call Logan (not their real name). Logan enrolled in a prison-sponsored class on recovery from addiction, to better themselves and as part of preparation for their eventual release. In the class, it seemed at first that Logan was encouraged to speak their mind. Class participation was, in fact, required.
Logan was always respectful with their comments, especially if they disagreed with the teacher, making sure to preface critical comments by noting that they were not directed at the teacher personally. But being respectful does not ensure that everyone will appreciate a comment. When Logan, despite being sure to clarify that they meant no offense to the teacher, expressed an opinion that they might benefit from being taught by someone who had personally experienced addiction, the teacher felt uncomfortable.
The story should have ended there. Some remarks are uncomfortable, especially when grappling with an issue as complex as substance use disorder. And in fact, the teacher continued with class, not chastising Logan for their remark nor bringing in a correctional officer to claim that there was a problem. After class, however, a correctional officer prevailed upon the teacher to write an incident report about Logan’s remark. That incident report became the basis for a disciplinary report. Logan’s expression of their opinion, in a class where participation was both required and encouraged, was distorted into an allegation of “grandstanding” and “making discrediting comments,” amounting to “insolent language” in the prison’s view. With these disciplinary charges pending, Logan was also—to their surprise—removed from the class the next day.
If these allegations sound full of hot air, they should. When Rachel and I asked for the rules and guidelines of the recovery class, so that we could see which rules Logan had allegedly broken, we were denied this request on the basis that such rules were “not relevant to the charges.” Moreover, the teacher of the class did not agree to show up to the disciplinary hearing. In the end, fortunately, Rachel and I helped Logan win a not guilty finding on all the charges against them, and he avoided further penalties. Still, Logan was unable to complete this class and it remains to be seen if they will have the opportunity to rejoin an addiction class.
At an antiracism training earlier this year, we studied various elements of white supremacy culture, such as perfectionism, either/or thinking, and worship of the written word. I was struck by how many of these elements often make up the basis of a disciplinary report against our clients. In Logan’s case, the white supremacist “right to comfort” is front and center. In white supremacy culture, the only dialogue permitted is that which does not make people uncomfortable. Only when biases are not challenged, and inadequacies are not exposed, is “open dialogue” permitted.
In prison, this “right” is enforced through disciplinary action like the ticket that Logan received. It is but one way of many that our incarcerated clients are not permitted to freely speak their mind or express themselves – even in a space that is purportedly set up by the prison to help clients work through a challenge as daunting as addiction. And it is one of many carceral logics that, to create a truly just and equitable society, must be abolished. If we truly wish to help one another recover, we must be prepared for it to be uncomfortable.