22 clean up for drug court graduation Former users see program as ‘a blessing’

Published 11:44 am Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Angela Wright stood in a crowded Warren County Circuit Courtroom Tuesday night with her smiling, proud 13-year-old daughter at her side and her 10-year-old son, 8-year-old daughter and mother and father nearby.

“I was separated from my kids for 15 months, and when I got back with them it just meant everything,” said Wright. “Drugs had me thinking that the drugs were more important than my kids, and also I got locked up for a while. I’m really thankful to drug court.”

Wright was one of 22 graduates of the 9th Circuit Court Drug Court Program who were honored with medals, congratulations, cheers and shout-outs from parents, sons, daughters and other family members and other defendants still working their way through the program.

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Wright, 31, was arrested in 2007 for manufacturing methamphetamine, and accepted into drug court in November 2009. Now a house manager at a drug and alcohol treatment center in Jackson, Wright is secretary of her Alcoholics Anonymous support group and said, “I’m staying in.”

Since the inception of drug court in 2005, 311 people have been accepted into the program, said administrator Maryam Husband. Circuit judges M. James Chaney, who presided over Tuesday’s graduation, and Isadore Patrick hold court twice a week to monitor the job or job seeking status, AA or Narcotics Anonymous meeting attendance, drug test results and fine and fee payments of those enrolled in drug court.

Former Circuit Judge Frank Vollor, who is credited with getting the program approved and funded, was the guest speaker for the graduation. He compared drug and alcohol addiction to being a prisoner of war, deprived of freedom, health, self-respect and sometimes, as with Wright, family.

“Congratulations,” Vollor told the graduates. “You have shown that you can be free of alcohol and drugs, free to direct and control your own lives. You have fought your own battle for freedom, and you have won.”

He went on to encourage them to keep fighting, continue attending AA or NA meetings and help others.

“This is like a half-time pep talk,” he said. “The game’s not over. Don’t be like the team that wins the first half and then loses the game.”

Greenville native Russell Arnold, 42, said he owes his life to the program.

“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It gave me the freedom to grow and also to make some mistakes, but keep going. They truly saved my life.”

Another graduate told the court, “Most of the people I knew when I was living that lifestyle are dead or serving a lengthy prison term. This program taught me a new way to live.”

Drug court grew out of Vollor’s courtroom experience that thefts and many other felonies result from addiction, he said in 2009 on the eve of his retirement from the bench after 20 years.

Since its inception, 65 participants have completed all four phases of the program, 101 have failed and been sent back into the justice system and 145 are currently working their way through, said Husband.

“It’s always good to see a drug court graduation because we know the program is working and we are putting productive individuals back out into society,” said District Attorney Ricky Smith, who as a defense attorney was part of the original team that got the program started. Patrick, Husband, mental health professionals and others were also involved.