Those Outspoken Against Drugs

By · Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

For the first time since 1987, I left prison to participate in a community service program. More than 246 months had passed since I walked in society. The sensations surprised me. They began soon after I walked out of the Taft camp and sat in the back seat of a van that our staff sponsor drove to Bakersfield.

The program in which I was participating goes by the acronym TOAD, which stands for Those Outspoken Against Drugs. TOAD is an outreach program through which inmate participants at the federal prison speak to at-risk adolescents about the perils of criminal lifestyles. Leaders of the Taft Correctional Institution make TOAD available to organizations in Kern County. TOAD participants hope to help others make more responsible decisions and avoid altercations with the criminal justice system.

Mr. Andrew Griffin, a substance abuse counselor at the Taft prison, coordinates and sponsors the group of ten inmate participants in TOAD. Five other TOAD members were with me as Griff drove us from Taft to the alternative school in Bakersfield where we were scheduled to make two presentations.

During the 20-plus years I had served in prison, I rarely had an opportunity to move or travel at a pace faster than my legs could carry me. I was unprepared for the stop-and-go motions of traveling through Bakersfield streets, or the visual of city traffic speeding in opposite lanes toward our vehicle. They felt like an onslaught, as if I were under attack in the midst of a graphic video game. I had not eaten before leaving the prison camp, though I still couldn’t control the upheaval from motion sickness in my stomach. Fortunately, I moved up to the front seat where I rolled down the window and stuck my head outside to combat the nausea and vertigo. When Griff parked the van, I stepped outside, still dizzy from the ride. Then another sensation came over me. I realized that I was many miles from prison boundaries, and no one had reason to consider me as anything other than a fellow human being. They did not know I was a prisoner, though I did not feel at ease. Too much time had passed since I had walked on city streets. I felt as if my wife should have been with me, yet there I stood, on the sidewalks of Bakersfield, without her. I missed the comfort her presence brings when she is with me.

The other TOAD members and I walked into the lobby of the school, and after a few minutes of polite introduction, a school counselor escorted our group into an auditorium. Once inside, I began to feel more at ease. The institutional setting was an environment I had grown used to over the past two decades, but this time our group had a different standing. In that school, rather than prisoners being watched, we stood before the audience as contributors who were deserving of attention and respect.

Griff introduced us, then each TOAD member spoke for between 15 and 20 minutes, describing the decisions we had made that led us to prison. Students and teachers alike listened intently, appreciating the insight we were providing into the consequences of criminal behavior. We not only told of our own experiences, but we performed a skit to show how the behavior of reckless adolescence could lead to criminal prosecution and lengthy prison terms. We spoke about prison life and expressed the importance of education. Our objective was to help the members of our audience see the value of their schooling, and the reasons why they should avoid criminal lifestyles.

Following our second presentation, we piled back into the van and buckled up for the long drive back to the prison camp in Taft. I felt more settled on the drive back and could take in the surroundings more easily. Griff described the growth of Bakersfield while I tried to process all the action outside the vehicle. Life was moving at a much faster pace than anything I had known since 1987. I didn’t realize how conditioned I had become to prison. The only peace I saw was a man who seemed to be enjoying himself while fishing alone on the bank of a lake.

I don’t know whether administrators will grant me the privilege of stepping into society again, as I am scheduled to serve about five more years before release, but as I settled back into the camp I realized the value of TOAD. It offers a great experience, one that benefits both society and participants. TOAD helped our audience by providing valuable information, and it gave long-term prisoners like me a glimpse of the world to which we were striving to return. Those interested in coordinating a visit from TOAD should contact Mr. Andrew Griffin, Substance Abuse Coordinator at Taft Correctional Institution.

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