Alcoholics Anonymous Takes Message Behind Bars

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in jail can provide a number of benefits for inmates and previous inmates.

Jail is not comfortable. It’s not convenient. It’s not familiar. And it’s not easy.

But Thomas Buist said what has become comfortable, convenient and familiar in his life is alcohol, and he needed some discomfort and inconvenience to interrupt his pattern of drinking and introduce him to a better way of life.

“When I’m free, there are not too many days when I’m not wondering what I’m gonna drink and when I’ll start drinking,” said Buist, 26, of Grand Rapids, Mich. “I was at the bar every night of the week.”

Buist’s drinking landed him in the Iowa County Jail in Marengo on Oct. 23 at the same time, as luck would have it, that the jail was joining dozens of other correctional facilities in the state that hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for inmates.

Although “no one’s glad to be in jail,” Buist said, the four AA meetings he’s attended have changed his life.

“It’s a great thing that they’ve done for us here,” said Buist, who plans to return to Michigan after his release and continue attending AA meetings.

“If I don’t do it now, I never will, and I’ll be the guy who’s 45 with a bad liver who can’t play with his kids,” Buist said. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t put on this earth to sit here and drink.”

All but one of Iowa’s nine prisons offer AA meetings for inmates, and AA volunteers are laying the groundwork to get into the Clarinda Correctional Facility, said Dave L., chairman of Iowa’s AA corrections committee who didn’t want his last name published because anonymity is a core value of AA.

About half of the state’s jails offer AA meetings, and the group has volunteers in many community corrections programs. But that’s not enough, Dave said.

The group’s corrections committee has intensified its efforts to get meetings in Iowa jails as the benefits of doing so become increasingly apparent, Dave said.

“Someone said something to me that hit home and that was, ‘I didn’t go to jail every time I drank, but every time I went to jail I had been drinking,’ ” he said. “To the guys I’ve talked to, it’s very true.”

The goal is to get AA programs in every prison, jail and community corrections facility in Iowa, Dave said. He and his colleagues have been meeting with officials and holding workshops around the state encouraging AA members to volunteer with their local inmates.

“It feels like it’s paying off,” Dave said.

Dave, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober since 2005, spreads the AA message in the Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, where he first attended an AA meeting in 2004. He said he didn’t immediately jump on board with the AA concept while behind bars.

“But the seeds were planted,” he said.

Buist, who faces operating while intoxicated and eluding charges out of Iowa County after being arrested on Interstate 80, said it helps to hear stories of healing from fellow alcoholics. And, he said, he thinks jail is an ideal place to introduce AA to people struggling with alcohol.

“People come in here for corrections, and they just sit in a cell,” he said. “They need the opportunity to learn how to not go down the same path.”

Iowa County Jail officials recognized the potential value of offering AA meetings to inmates more than a year ago, but jail administrator Jeff Krotz said the county needed a willing volunteer and time. The jail now has held half a dozen meetings, and participation so far has impressed, Krotz said.

“We are not going to change everyone,” he said. “But maybe we can get people thinking there is more to life than alcohol.”

Both the Johnson County Jail and the Linn County Correctional Center have offered AA programs for years, but Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said his facility, which has battled crowding issues for years, has low participation because inmates always are being shipped to other facilities with more space.

If voters approve a bond referendum to fund a larger jail, Pulkrabek said, he wants to expand rehabilitation programming — including AA meetings.

“It would be nice to give some people the extra skills they need to deal with difficulties they have in normal, everyday life when they’re out of the facility,” he said.

Randy Papakee, 37, of Tama, is among the inmates attending AA meetings in Iowa County and said he’s glad to be in a place where he can get help for his addiction.

“It makes you realize there’s a different life if you want it,” Papakee said.

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