'So how many of you enjoy coming to jail?' Counselor fights on the front lines of California's drug war
Robert Greear is a soldier on the front lines of California’s battle against drugs. He wages war every day in the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center near Elk Grove, where he works as a counselor.
Changes in state laws have created funding to help keep nonviolent drug addicts or alcoholics from returning to prison. We’re talking about people who feed their habits by stealing cars, forging checks, burglarizing commercial buildings or committing any number of other crimes synonymous with substance abuse.
On a sunny day earlier this week, Greear, 63, was running a class for this cohort inside RCCC, men who had bottomed out, some more than once, and found themselves incarcerated after breaking laws, as well as the hearts of friends and family members victimized by their addictions.
Greear understands these people because he was once one of them – a meth addict who threw away a good living in the aerospace industry and spent time in San Quentin and Folsom prisons before committing to sobriety.
“I figured as a drug addict that I would kill myself with drugs, or I would catch some ungodly disease, or I would be at the wrong place at the wrong time and get killed,” said Greear, an amiable bear of a man who smiles readily and doesn’t shy away from speaking openly about an adult life dominated by drug abuse.
Instead of dying years ago, as he thought he would, Greear now lives to help others achieve sobriety and stability. He’s not surprised when his students swear they are cured and then return to using. He’s not hurt when they lie to him. He’s not put off by their sickly pallor, the tattoos on their faces, their inability to make eye contact, their twitching, their inattentiveness.
These are the symptoms of addiction, he said. It’s a hell with many levels of deception and denial. Treating these people is the definition of easier said than done. And yet Greear persists.
“I look at a class of 15 people knowing that the majority of them are going to commit crimes and come back,” he said recently. “The hardest part of my job is accepting that some people won’t make it.”
Herein lies the challenge of supporting one of the major pillars of prison realignment: the campaign to keep drug addicts out of prison populations.
Is it working? Some would argue that it’s too early to tell. But this we do know: Greear’s students are the types of people who are likely to join the ranks of Sacramento’s surging homeless population. And they are the exact audience identified as a key to reducing overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons.
California’s Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011 tapped into state sales tax and vehicle license fees to fund public-safety programs for counties. In November 2012, California voters approved Proposition 30, which created a constitutional amendment to protect funding for realignment.
By 2013, Sacramento County began implementing programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and – hopefully – to keep them from reoffending. By 2014, Greear was hired to be a kind of shepherd for a wayward flock of men whose afflictions are not easily cured or treated.
Spend one day with Greear inside the walls of the RCCC and you will discover what a massive crapshoot realignment can be. Right now, no one can say for certain that the county’s program is succeeding because the analytics to track recidivism are either still in the works or nonexistent.
What we can say right now, through the experiences of Greear, other counselors and law enforcement officers, is that the drug war is being fought locally with a commitment to treatment. What we can say right now is that this is brutal work with as many or more failures as success stories.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Lawrence Brown, the Superior Court judge who oversees the county’s drug court, mental health court and “re-entry court.”
The former U.S. Attorney in Sacramento, Brown started Sacramento County’s re-entry court in late 2013 with the buy-in of the local district attorney, public defender and law enforcement. The idea was to stop the revolving door at state prisons for nonviolent drug offenders and get them into treatment.
The concept: Offenders selected by prosecutors, law enforcement and public defenders would agree to pleading guilty or no contest to their latest offense and be sentenced to jail time. But Brown could take time off their sentences so long as they enrolled in rehabilitation classes and successfully completed them.
Greear is one of several counselors who works to get these men clean and out of the system for good. It takes a minimum of one year to demonstrate to Brown that the defendant is ready to be released from jail and re-enter society.
Brown estimates that 30 people have graduated from the re-entry program since its launch, and as many as 30 have failed.
How many of the 30 who graduated have stayed clean? Brown said they haven’t had the funds to study that yet. “The success is marked by the fact they earn their graduation, which doesn’t happen without getting clean and becoming a productive member of society,” he said.
“While some get in trouble again, particularly due to relapsing, I am very confident the overall recidivism rate is markedly lower than it would have been having not gone through the program,” Brown added. “My goal is to one day have the court formally studied under a grant.”
Brown said that Greear, because of his own personal experience, has become an invaluable player in the evaluation of whether a drug offender is ready for release. “Robert is big-hearted, but he is also a realist,” he said. “When he speaks relative to treatment, what he says carries a lot of weight.”
It’s a remarkable turnaround for Greear. He lost touch with his family for 20 years. He has been homeless. He has been in the full grip of meth addiction.
“It’s a hellacious drug,” he said. “It controls your mind.”
Greear said he thought was ready to get clean around 1999 or 2000, but it took him several attempts to get sober. He stopped using on June 4, 2004 and has maintained his sobriety ever since. Before that, he did all the things that addicts do. He lied to everyone, including himself. He felt dead inside unless he was high.
Teaching coping skills, parenting skill and job skills at RCCC, Greear said he can tell when an addict is truly ready to change his life. “You have to reach a point where you have had enough,” he said.
This week, the men in his class all said they wanted to become productive citizens. But some also admitted they had no idea how they will maintain once they are out. They become bored by the sameness of everyday life. They find that anything – from a single beer to a bad breakup – can send them back on a bender and back to jail.
But Greear has been able to help others adjust.
“Rob really helped me a lot,” said Daniel Yoe, a recovering alcoholic who met Greear while he was at RCCC.
After his fourth DUI, Yoe was jailed and took one of Greear’s classes in the hope of becoming a good father. He was incarcerated when his son Christian was born; Greear got in touch with Yoe’s wife and delivered baby photos to the inmate within hours of the birth.
Now a stay-at-home dad, Yoe credits Greear and other counselors for helping him improve his lot. “Rob made a connection with me, and I consider him a friend,” he said. “I was ready for change, and (his classes) were a big part of it.”