In nearly every state, prison populations have exploded -- in large part, because of drug laws and the people, like Manny Hills, who are arrested and incarcerated for those laws. Over the last 25 years, Manny, an addict, has been convicted several times for drug possession and other petty crimes. His story is pretty typical of the people who fill up our nation's prisons.
While many defendants may be in prison for other charges, a federal program that tests people at arrest in several cities has found that nearly two-thirds tested positive for at least one illicit drug.
I’ve been following Manny and his family, as he finishes up his sixth sentence and heads home.
“That’s Burnell my son, they call him Bookie,” says sister, Johnnie Mae Hills Sylve, Manny’s oldest sister, holding up a framed picture in her house.
“This is one of my grand-daughters,” she says, pointing to another.
“This is all my sisters. My baby sister Angie -- she live in Mississippi.”
“Was it her wedding?” I ask.
“Yeah, it was her wedding.” Johnnie point to one of the people in the photograph. “My sister Gail, and that’s Janice. That’s all of us. That’s all girls.”
“How come your brothers aren’t in that shot?” I ask.
“My brother was in jail.”
“For the wedding? “
“Yeah, every time we look he was in jail.”
Like so many addicts, Manny sometimes committed crimes so he could afford to score more drugs.
Johnnie is the oldest of eight kids. She just turned 60; her brother Manny just turned 56.
“So you said he was in like 3 times before this time?” I ask.
“For drugs,” says Johnnie.
“He had an addiction problem?”
“Yeah he was on ‘em. Girl, Manny used to get in my house and steal all my little stuff. He stole my hot water heater out here. I had a brand new hot water heater. He stole that from me. Yeah, he stole all my stuff though, but I love him.”
Johnnie lives in St. Bernard Parish. I meet her one day after she gets off work. She hops out of her cousin’s truck wearing work boots and carrying her hard hat. Johnnie explains, when she’s at the oil refinery, the only thing that lets people know she’s a woman is her lipstick. Then she reaches into her shirt pocket, and reapplies it.
Outside, Johnnie points at the roof of her house, where she lives with her daughter Gabbie.
“It had a hole right here, on the outside right there -- on that side,” explains Johnnie. “Manny got back on drugs. And Manny used to get in there, up there and go through my attic and come down. I had all this stuff that I had from my mama. Manny stole all that, all my stuff. I had all kinds of power drill. Manny stole my Mama’s watch I had. And the lady across the street said, ‘I be seeing your brother come out the door.’ I say: ‘he got no key to get in my house!’”
Because Manny didn't have a key, Johnnie knew he was breaking in, so she had her son nail a board over the hole – on the outside and the inside – making it impossible for him to climb in again. Johnnie’s daughter Gabbie saw Manny come by one night, look up at the hole, shake his head, and walk away.
“Did you ever talk about it with him?” I ask.
“Yeah. Oh, he would laugh.” Johnnie impersonates Manny’s voice: “’Girl come on now, come on now.’ And I know he did it, cause I can tell when he be lying. But yeah.”
Johnnie says when Manny is in prison, she misses talking and clowning around with him, and she worries someone might take advantage of him. But she also feels relief -- that he’s not asking her for money and leaning on her for everything. This kind of sentiment is not uncommon among families of incarcerated addicts.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 50 percent of states’ inmates meet the medical criteria for drug abuse, but only 15 percent of drug-dependent inmates actually receive treatment.
Manny was one of the lucky ones. About eight years ago, he graduated from a drug rehab program funded by the Department of Corrections, or DOC. He’s been clean since then, but he hadn’t completely changed his company and was arrested five years ago when he gave a ride to someone who left drugs in his car, he says.
But the question remains: should substance abuse be viewed as a public-health issue instead of something we lock people up for? Across America, families like Manny’s have almost no access to professional help for addiction. Michael Botticelli is the Federal Drug Czar and also a recovered alcoholic. He’s called imprisoning people for substance abuse "inhumane” and says, “We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people.”
“Some people just don’t need to be there,” says Leo Hayden, Director of Reentry for DOC’s Louisiana’s Southeast Region-- the reentry program Manny was in. Hayden says, just because people are complicated, maybe even exasperating, doesn’t mean they should be in prison.
“And that’s a fact. I mean all criminologists will tell you that too as well. We've become so entrenched on incarcerating individuals. Everybody's a nail, cause we the hammer.”
When I first met Manny, he was finishing up his most recent sentence. This time he went through the Reentry Program led by Leo Hayden. It was family night, and Johnnie and her sister Janice left work early to see Manny. They brought a big box of food.
“He told us what he wanted,” explains Johnnie. “He wanted Church’s chicken, pork chop—“
“That’s all I wanted,” declares Manny, “Church’s chicken and pork chop. I wanted meat.”
“I had some gumbo in the freezer for you,” says Johnnie, but “Bookie took it and ate it today.”
“Oh, I’m a catch him.”
“Baby, you looking good boy,” observes Johnnie.
The siblings hadn’t seen each other in years. They can’t talk on the phone very much because phone calls home from prison are really expensive. (They cost 20-30 times more than regular phone calls.) Johnnie’s on a tight budget, so she had to tell Manny to stop calling.
I ask Manny: “When your sister tells you to stop calling cause she can’t afford it—“
“I keep calling,” he says. “Like I say, I don’t want them to answer the phone. I just call you know, when they say hello, I can hear them and I hang up the phone.”
This is Manny’s no-cost way to stay connected. Sort-of.
“You know, just by hearing their voices, makes me feel good,” says Manny.
“Yeah sometime he just call and then we say hello,” says Johnnie, “and the phone click off. He just wanting to be hear our voice.”
“As long as I can hear their voice, I’m cool.”
Manny, whose real name is Calvin, has a pork chop in one hand and a piece of fried chicken in the other and at the same time was introducing Johnnie and Janice to everyone who walks by.
“That’s my sister and them, and I love them to death, you know,” Manny tells a counselor. “They my good support for me.”
“We need you just as much as you need us, Calvin,” Johnnie responds.
“Yes indeed, and I know one thing: I’m 55, I can’t go no more. This my last one here.”
“Yeah, mistakes have been made but, but he got to get over that,” says Johnnie. “Can’t do that no more. I told him: we getting too old for this.”
Manny could sit down with his sisters because he was in the DOC’s Reentry program. Leo Hayden chose prisoners for the program who were toward the end of their sentences, especially those who had strong family support.
“Everybody that comes into my program and has a family, I meet with them,” says Hayden, “because it is probably the number one strength they bring: their family and their community.”
Manny finished his sentence and was released on May 17. What happens now could go either way. 50% of released prisoners in Louisiana are back inside within five years. Statistically, because Manny’s over 50 years old, he may have a better chance of staying out. But things are looking a little rough. He had a job when he got out, but he quit saying he didn’t have the gas money to get to work.
While reentry programs are supposed to be a bridge from prison back into the community, the program Manny was in ended before his release. So when he got out, Manny was left without any follow-through or support. In fact, when I called Leo Hayden to ask about Manny’s situation, Hayden didn’t know Manny was struggling. He called Manny right away.
Hayden told me, for program graduates like Manny, “everything doesn’t necessarily go storybook smooth. There’s a reason he was in prison in the first place.”
That reason – his chronic addiction and unreliability -- is already causing friction in his family. His sister Johnnie would like to see him succeed, to be there for the next family picture, but her patience for having him in her house has an expiration date.
“When you come out,” says Johnnie, “I’ma give you 6 months. You can’t stay with me forever.”
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.