MAYS LANDING - Governor Christie has emphasized he'd like to see more treatment for non-violent drug offenders, rather than having them fill up our jails. At the Atlantic County Justice Facility Thursday afternoon, inmates were taking a step in the right direction in getting their lives back on track, thanks to a program directly in-line with the governor's proposal.
"We're exactly where we need to be and it's sad to think I had to go to jail to become free." 37 year-old Ben Murawski may be behind bars, but after being addicted to drugs for 15 years, he says he's never felt so free. "I found my freedom with this program," he said.
Murawski was just one of nearly two-dozen inmates at the Atlantic County Justice Facility who graduated from a comprehensive substance abuse treatment program Thursday, a program that many say has given them a new sense of purpose. "Bottom line is I wanna live life, I don't wanna...I don't wanna die," said 55 year-old Jimmy Pyles, an inmate from Atlantic City who called himself a catastrophic alcoholic. He just completed the program and says he's never felt so positive about the direction his life will take. "I really would like to get into this field, wouldn't even mind going to school and coming back to work for this therapeutic community."
"This gives them a sense of accomplishment, of liberation, a chance of re-claiming their lives again," said John McLernon, the Director of Social Services at the Atlantic County Jail, "One of the things we say is life begins when you leave here again." Drugs and drug related crimes are the biggest factors that bring people to the jail, according to McLernon. In fact, 81% of the inmates there are substance-dependent, which is why many, including the governor are now supporting treatment for non-violent drug offenders, rather than incarceration.
"I think that Governor Christie's treatment for non-violent offenders is a step in the right direction," said Murawski, "If we were sick, we'd get the help, well, we're sick people and we need help worst than most."
"It's not like we can cut out the pathology," said McLernon, "it's not like we can cut out the diseased tissue from their body. We're actually changing the way we think about life and really learning how to cope with life without alcohol and other drugs in their system." And those who have completed the program say that's just what they've learned from it, and feel they have the tools to now really succeed in life, once on the outside.
"I know what I'm doing from here," said Murawski with a smile, "I know where I'm going and I attribute it all to this program."
The modified therapeutic community program started last year, thanks to a grant from the state. So far, 42 inmates have graduated from the program.