“Oh, I’m dead sober, Andy, but I s’pect I’ll get over it.” — Otis Campbell

Anyone who grew up in America in the 1960s recognizes the name Otis Campbell. Mayberry’s town drunk had his own key to the jail and would stagger in on Friday nights. Andy would leave towels and soap for Otis so he could “sleep it off” all day Saturday and shower before church on Sunday.

Andy Taylor’s (aka Griffith) jail may have been the first in America to work with alcoholics behind bars.

He wasn’t the last.

While America’s population comprises just 5% of the global population, the U.S. has 25% of the planet’s prison population. At any given moment, there are over 7 million persons in America behind bars or on parole. That pretty much does it for the land of the free.

The prevailing system doesn’t work. The broken correctional policies have quadrupled the American prison community since the 1970s. The operation has become a revolving door. Many who cycle through are grappling with mental illness or addiction. An alternative solution is needed.

Spiritual Based Effort Reduces Prison Violence

“We couldn’t go over two weeks without one gang attacking another,” said Hector Lozano, The Sierra Conservation Center’s coordinator for the prison’s addiction programs. “People are now talking with each other instead of one group charging another.”

So far, almost 450 of the medium-security unit’s 1200 prisoners have participated in a Twelve Step program which grew out of a religious program based on “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.

About 100 inmates participate in the Bible-based Twelve-Step program at any moment. The program is helping inmates deal not just with alcohol and other drug addictions, but also emotional problems as well.

How AA Works Behind Bars

Often, persons believe Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are not needed in prison because there is no alcohol. Those people are wrong. Inmates are skilled at creating their own booze and guards sometimes smuggle in real liquor β€” for a price.

But AA is more about helping people to stay “dry.” AA is also about helping people remain sober. Being “dry” is the physical state of being alcohol-free. Being sober is the mental and spiritual part of recovery.

AA behind bars also provides a source of emotional support for alcoholics recovering in prison. The meetings aren’t that much different than in the “free world.”

Meetings begin with the group repeating the Serenity Prayer in unison before someone reads a section from the Big Book and reviews the 12 Steps.

Following that start, familiar to AA members globally, the meeting is open, and discussions cover whatever someone wants to bring up. As in free world meetings, everyone in the group can respond, give advice or share how they relate to the subject.

Everyone introduces themselves, before speaking, as “I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.”

No one is forced to go to AA; the meetings are attended and managed by volunteers. Often AA members from outside are allowed to visit prisons to help facilitate meetings and share their stories.

Whether behind bars or outside, AA meetings vary in format, size, and demographics. They all cluster around the same principle which is to “stay sober and help others achieve sobriety.”

One inmate says, β€œThe thought of one alcoholic helping another is remarkable β€” especially behind bars with all the racism and convict attitudes.”

Like those of us in the free world, we understand where other alcoholics are coming from.