Former drug addict relieved to be alive

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

You won’t find an air conditioner in any inmate wings at Fuchu Prison, no matter how hot it is outside. And on this sweltering, cloudless day in August, it is certainly hot. Two members from Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC) are preparing to hold a session with a group of repeat drug offenders in a room that is kept cool with only a fan. Vibrant sunlight streams through the lace curtains, giving the scene a somewhat surreal backdrop. Every once and a while, a gust of wind wafts through the room, making the temperature just bearable despite the suffocating heat.

The theme of the day is “hitting rock bottom.”

“There have been plenty of times in my life when I thought I was at rock bottom — when I dropped out of high school, for example, or when I first got hooked on drugs,” an inmate in his 30s says, requesting anonymity. “Today, however, I look outside and see this beautiful sunny day and I can’t help thinking that this time I’ve really hit rock bottom.”

Four inmates participate in the prison’s rehabilitation program for drug addicts that day, all of them repeat offenders. Prisons across the country have been organizing their own rehabilitation programs for drug addicts but, until recently, they primarily consisted of lectures and videos of experiments on rats, which provided graphic evidence of how dangerous drugs were. Such methods, however, typically fail to treat the physical and psychological problems surrounding addiction and addicts, more often than not, soon find themselves back behind bars.

In 2006, legislation was amended in an effort to encourage prisons to initiate rehabilitation programs for addicts. At Fuchu Prison, which holds about 2,400 inmates and is currently the country’s largest detention facility, around 800 inmates, or 33 percent, are serving time for drug-related offenses.

During a separate interview with The Japan Times, the inmate in his 30s says he was a former gangster who is currently serving an 18-month sentence for using methamphetamine. He has previously served a 6½-year term. “Drugs were a daily part of my life,” he says. “It was probably like eating three times a day for some people. I didn’t like it. I wanted to quit every time I used drugs but I couldn’t.”

Upon being released from prison at the end of his first stint behind bars, the man left the gang, started his own business and managed to stay sober for five years. One day, however, he was watching a news program on TV that was discussing how easy it was to buy drugs online. Intrigued, he went on the Internet and found that it was in fact as easy as the TV program had suggested. A month later, he was arrested again and was sentenced to a second stint in prison.

DARC’s Masaru Yamamoto and Hiroyuki Kanda lead the session. Both recovering addicts themselves, they share their own experiences with drugs. Yamamoto also recounts the time he had served in jail, while Kanda describes how he had been forced into a pyschiatric institute for his addiction.

Kanda’s addiction to drugs started at the age of 15. He started sniffing glue, which led to marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. “I thought I was doing drugs because I liked it,” says Kanda, who has been sober for 17 years. “I thought I was weak and selfish for not being able to quit. That was when my wife told me to go to DARC. I was told that I had a disease called addiction and I needed treatment. I’ve lost so much along the way but at least I’m still alive.”

Yamamoto, meanwhile, has served 18 months in prison for the possession and use of stimulants, grievous bodily harm and firearms violations. He says he never had the chance to interact with DARC members during that time but that he was forced to go by his parents after being released. “We have the same experience as the prisoners and by sharing it with them, it helps us connect with them too,” says Yamamoto, who has been sober for 12 years. “I’ve been there, with my head shaved, wearing those green overalls. By going to the prisons, it helps me reflect on my past. At the same time, I hope that our stories will leave some sort of impression somewhere in the back of their minds.”

Toshiyuki Furune, an employee at Fuchu Prison who specializes in rehabilitation programs, believes the sessions can make a difference.

“The experiences of DARC employees are like powerful drugs themselves,” Furune says. “By having them participate, they add something that we, as prison employees, cannot.”

However, staying sober behind bars is relatively easy. The hard part comes when inmates are released. Furune hopes the inmates will eventually be so used to gathering together with fellow addicts so regularly that they will seek out such support groups once they are out as well.

The inmate who is in his 30s says he is fortunate because his wife and his in-laws have been there for him the whole time.

At the same time, however, he realizes he cannot expect them to put up with his addiction anymore. He says he will check himself into an institution once his prison term is up. “It is very hard to quit drugs and I can’t do it on my own because there are pitfalls all around outside these walls that I could fall into. To be honest, I can’t promise to quit,” he says. “But I know that this is my last chance because I can’t make my wife wait any longer. I’m glad to be able to participate in this program and hear stories from fellow addicts.”