Bill Yates is a 38 year-old inmate at the New Hampshire State Prison. He is a former heroin addict who will be eligible for early release in October. That release is unlikely to be granted, however, because Yates refuses to participate in the prison's only substance abuse recovery program. The program, called Summit House, is one of many 12-step programs modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, and is based in large part on admitting powerlessness over an abused substance and turning oneself over to the power of God. Bill Yates objects.
Yates is an advocate for Rational Recovery, a non-religious program for abusers which emphasizes people taking control of their lives, rather than relinquishing control to a higher religious force. Rather than the 12-step "one day at a time" philosophy which binds participants to a lifelong recovery process, Rational Recovery emphasizes a "big plan" for total, final recovery. Yates claims to have quit using heroin, a life-change which he sees as permanent, without 12-step. He refuses, therefore, to be forced into a religious program, against his beliefs, as a condition of gaining his freedom. This time, it is the New Hampshire Department of Corrections which objects.
Steve Kennet, director of substance abuse programs for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, told the Concord Monitor, "The people who created Rational Recovery, as far as I can see, have problems with God. They can't separate out God from spirituality. They don't like the idea of being powerless. If you're an alcoholic, the fact remains, you are powerless." Yates' application for sentence reduction was recently rejected by warden Michael Cunningham, who wrote in his decision, "I believe a sentence modification should not be granted until he completes the Summit House program." Mr. Yates is currently filing a federal lawsuit on his own behalf.
Jack Trimpy is the founder of Rational Recovery. He spoke with The Week Online. "First of all, we reject the notion that everyone with a substance abuse problem needs to remain an addict for the rest of their lives, surrounding themselves with other such self-defined people, and continuing to profess their powerlessness over their own lives. Alcoholics Anonymous has spawned an entire twelve- step industry, and in cases like Mr. Yates' it is working hand in hand with the state. People are classified according to a presumed genetic defect, their future behavior is predicted, and they are monitored and tracked by these programs for the benefit of the referring court. This collaboration, using the medical model of the powerless individual, has turned these programs into a fellowship of informers."
"In addition, there is no question that the programs are religious based." (The twelve-step pledge includes the following statements: had become unmanageable; We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him; We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects from our character.) "Under the U.S. Constitution, the government has no business forcing, or even referring people into such programs," says Trimpy, "and certainly, the act of keeping someone imprisoned on the basis of their unwillingness to accept and participate in the tenets of these programs is an affront to the principle of religious freedom."
DRCNet Executive Director David Borden comments, "AA and other 12-step programs have been a terrific help for a large number of people. The Dept. of Corrections' mistake, besides the religious and constitutional issues, is thinking it's the only acceptable mode of recovery or that it will work for everyone."
To find out more about Rational Recovery, including how to subscribe to the Journal of Rational Recovery, check out their web site at http://www.rational.org/recovery. An online directory of recovery programs, including 12-step programs like AA, as well as secular program like RR, can be found at http://www.netwizards.net/recovery/.