By BRIAN KELLY
Cortney L. Tanner of Watertown began using heroin when she was 14 years old.
By age 20, she was addicted and in a locked-down state facility, having been convicted in Jefferson County Court of selling the drug, something she admits to doing “every day.” She was initially sentenced to probation, but after violating supervision found herself behind bars about three hours from home.
“I just had a lot of childhood issues I was dealing with and I was just numbing the pain instead of dealing with them the proper way,” Ms. Tanner said.
Her sentence for violating probation was two years in state prison. Being locked up and away from the elements that helped fuel her drug use, in and of itself, was not going to solve her drug issues, she said. She needed to understand the root cause of the abuse and learn how to cope with life without drugs.
That is how she found herself at the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Willard Drug Treatment Program, a substance abuse rehabilitation program for nonviolent drug offenders located in a former insane asylum overlooking Seneca Lake. While the program’s grounds are commonly referred to as a “campus” and Willard is not considered a correctional facility under state law, there is no mistaking the tall chain-link fences and razor wire that surround it; it is a prison setting, staffed by state corrections officers.
The difference is that people who are sent to Willard are not referred to as “inmates,” but parolees. They are technically sentenced to parole, not prison, but first they must complete the 90-day military-style boot camp — complete with drill instructors and daily marches — where virtually every minute of a parolee’s day, from 5:30 a.m. wake-up to 9:30 p.m. lights-out, is accounted for.
“It’s about changing their lives,” said Rickey A. Bartlett, Willard’s superintendent. “They stop battling and start listening. Once they’ve got that focus, they can begin their recovery.”
Parolees’ day begins with physical training to help cleanse the body of long-abused substances and to emphasize self-discipline. The remainder of the morning and early afternoon are devoted to academic and vocational training, alternating with work assignments such as mopping floors and preparing meals for other parolees. From late afternoon until 9 p.m., with a short dinner break, parolees participate in substance abuse therapeutic sessions.
During one such session in March, a female parolee sat surrounded by her peers, who are free to confront her — or whoever happens to be sitting in the seat — about recovery efforts and acceptance of responsibility for decisions and behaviors that have led them to Willard. In this instance, the unidentified woman turned the tables and offered her own advice to the group.
“You don’t have to go back to unhealthy friends. You don’t have to go back to the unhealthy family. You have a choice,” she said. “If you were sitting in another jail right now, you’d come out the same person you went in as.”
Mr. Bartlett said that while being confronted by the group can make some parolees uncomfortable and even upset, most participants look forward to the sessions.
“For some reason, people think, ‘I’m the only one,’ but here you find out, ‘My path is the same as yours.’ It’s very powerful,” he said.
The walls inside Willard are all adorned with positive sayings, most painted by parolees. Violence is not tolerated; even shoving another parolee gets you kicked out of the program, meaning a transfer to prison for the completion of the court-ordered sentence.
And that sentence can be longer for a Willard failure than if an offender simply pleaded guilty to a drug-related crime and was sentenced to straight time, at least in Jefferson County Court. Judge Kim H. Martusewicz said he imposes “enhanced” sentences for those referred to Willard, meaning offenders face a longer time in prison if they fail the program than they would have received without participating in it.
“So they know going into the system that they are not going to be sitting in a prison cell for all that long, but if they do not do well, they have that longer sentence hanging over their head,” Judge Martusewicz said.
So far this year, six people have been sentenced to Willard from Jefferson County Court, with at least four more people awaiting sentencing. In 2013, the county referred 28 people to the program. While most were convicted of possessing or selling controlled substances, some were referred to Willard for grand larceny or possession of stolen property convictions, or similar crimes in which the underlying cause was the individual’s drug addiction.
Judge Martusewicz said a variety of factors affects his decision to mandate that an offender be referred to Willard, including family, employment and criminal histories, as well as the extent of the addiction. The judge mandates the program only with the agreement of the offender, his or her attorney and the district attorney’s office, which can oppose the move if they believe the person is seeking Willard solely to avoid a stiffer sentence.
“Willard can be effective for individuals that have an actual drug addiction, but for people without a drug addiction, it is easier for them to complete than a regular bid would be,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Kristyna S. Mills said.
Judge Martusewicz said he has learned from his experience presiding over the county’s Drug Court program that often a 30-, 60- or even 90-day rehabilitation program is sometimes not enough for an addict and he is not averse to sentencing a person to Willard more than once.
“There are numerous people who have been to Willard more than once,” he said. “The 90 days wasn’t enough to get them on a healthier footing.”
After-care is both mandatory and key for Willard parolees, according to Mr. Bartlett. The 90-day stay is followed by six months of outpatient treatment under the intense supervision of a parole officer, treatment that is arranged for prior to the person being released from Willard through such organizations as Credo Community Center for the Treatment of Addictions in Jefferson County or St. Lawrence County Community Services Board, among others. The person then finishes out the entirety of the sentence under parole supervision. While Willard is run by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which includes parole, it also operates collaboratively with the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
“We’re the first part of the recovery process, the first step toward after-care,” Mr. Bartlett said.
Linda M. Foglia, a DOCS spokeswoman, was unable to provide recidivism rates specific for Willard graduates, but said in an email that the overall number of inmates who have returned to DOCS custody for committing a new crime has declined almost every year since 1990, from 34.8 percent in 1990 to 9.6 percent in 2009.
DOCS tracks overall recidivism rates over a three-year period following an inmate’s release, meaning the 2009 figure represents those inmates released in 2010, 2011 and 2012. While 9.6 percent of the inmates returned for committing a new crime, an additional 31.3 percent returned as parole violators.
The Willard program, created in 1995, is designed to serve about 900 men and women at a time. Mr. Bartlett said that, on average, about 700 parolees are in the program at any given time. In March, there were about 730 parolees at Willard. About 3,000 parolees go through the program annually. The facility employs nearly 500 people, according to the Department of Corrections.
Ms. Tanner admitted to being “scared” when she first arrived at Willard and said she “did not want to come here at all.” But after a few weeks of counseling and group therapy, she was more optimistic about her recovery.
“It’s opened my eyes a lot,” she said. “I’ve discovered things about myself that I probably would have never realized on the outside. I would have never taken a look at myself and seen where the real problems are coming from.”
She said upon completion of Willard she planned to “separate myself from the people and places that I used to be with,” stay busy, get a GED and “really just do the things I need to do.
“I have a lot more confidence in myself,” Ms. Tanner said. “I really didn’t think I would change at all. I thought I would just fly through here. Graduating is something I accomplished and I really haven’t accomplished anything in the last six years of my life. The choices that I made, that time that I wasted, is time I can’t get back with my family and my loved ones. It’s just not worth it.”
Mr. Bartlett said he hears similar epiphanies from many graduates.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Some of the ones who fight the most when they get here are the most grateful when they leave.”
Mr. Bartlett frequently meets with graduates leaving Willard and reminds them how they were brought into the facility, by getting off a bus at the rear of the facility and being led through a gate and into a fortified walkway.
“You came in on a draft bus and came in through the back,” Mr. Bartlett tells graduates. “You leave as men and women going out the front door, just like everyone else here. You’ve accomplished something.”