End The Prison-For-Profit Movement & Offer Recovery Solutions Now

My name is Ryan Riggs and I am a person in long-term recovery from addiction. What that means to me, is that I have not found it necessary to use any mood or mind-altering substances since April 20, 2015. This journey has been the most amazing experience that I have ever had, and it only continues to get better. My story, in large part, involves the criminal justice system.  As result of my addiction and lack of resources, I fell into a vicious cycle of drug use, incarceration, and dereliction. Nine overdoses and fifteen or more jail sentences later, I found a way out. Jail and prison are not the solution to addiction. My life today is beyond my wildest dreams, but let me tell you a little bit about the journey.

I was raised in a lower-middle class family in Richmond, VA. I began using drugs around the age of 14 and it quickly progressed. I went from marijuana and alcohol, to pills and crack, then to heroin – in 2.5 five seconds. My drug use began to have consequences early, and those consequences never stopped me. Incarcerated at 14 years old for drug possession, I quickly dispelled my fear of “doing time.” I quickly learned how to adapt to the institutional environment, thus relieving incarceration as a deterrent for me.

The following years were marked by numerous juvenile detention home visits which turned into jail stays as the years progressed. Jail is not a place that someone should learn life lessons in becoming a man. The rules that are adhered to, and the principles one lives by, in jail are more tools of survival than tools for living a productive life. I learned that weakness was not tolerated. Any form of weakness that was perceived would be exploited. I began to develop a sub-personality that was more of a mask than anything else. The problem came when I began to identify with that mask and started to believe that’s who I truly was. The morals and values of prison life are not applicable to life on the outside. I was not only locked up physically, but locked up mentally as well.

Jail programs for addiction were virtually non-existent throughout the majority of my incarceration. When programs did become available, I took advantage of the opportunity. In 2008, I was introduced to recovery in a program inside the Richmond City Jail. It was here that my journey in recovery began. I would like to say that I stayed clean after that and that I lived happily ever after, but that’s not the case. I gained a ton of information but still had no idea how to apply it. I was released. And when the door shut behind me, I was on my own. I proceeded to do what I always did, and ended up with the results that I always got.

The turning point for me was when I was released for the last time and got involved with a Recovery Residence by the name of Libbie Avenue Recovery. From there I began to live in a community that had experience living life on the outside of institutions, free from drugs. I began to do some volunteer work for the McShin Foundation, a recovery community organization (RCO) in the area. I wanted to help people who were incarcerated find a path to freedom, just as I had. I was offered a job working with inmates, at the Richmond City Jail, where I was once housed. In this arena, I learned how to use my experience as a teaching tool to help those who suffer from the same problems I did, addiction and criminal thinking. I then became the program coordinator for a new program in the Chesterfield County jail called HARP (Heroin Addiction Recovery Program), a multi-faceted approach at tackling substance use disorder, with a heavy focus on peer-to-peer recovery.

Chesterfield Jail's HARP Program
Chesterfield Jail’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP)

My life would be drastically different if I had never found the recovery community.  It has been the foundation of my new life. This community taught me how to live life as a productive member of society, free from the bondage of addiction. No jail time or consequence ever kept me from using drugs. The term “it takes a village” is the best way I can describe this.  It took the recovery community and a lot of hard work to raise me into the man I am today.

I’m coming up on 2 years clean.  I’m married to the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  My children look up to me and think I’m the strongest man in the world. I recently regained full custody of my daughters. I work or volunteer in three different jails in the Richmond metro area, doing something that I love to do – helping others. I’m a loyal friend, faithful servant, caring son, and a faithful and loving husband and father.  I’m going to college in pursuit of a degree in social sciences. These accomplishments are not mine. They are OURS. And they belong to the recovery community! Had it not been for the love, support, and guidance of those who travel this journey with me, I would undoubtedly be dead or in jail.

Addiction touches almost every family at some level. The people serving time in jail and prison because of their addiction are someone’s mother, father, son, or daughter.  They all deserve the same opportunity I had. We need to stop building more prisons, and build more bridges to recovery. Stop the prison-for-profit movement that has crippled our country and start providing real solutions to this problem. These private businesses are getting rich while our communities are suffering. Prison profits soar, while social capital declines. There is much more that needs to be done and it all starts with talking about it. The more we talk about it and the more people we get involved, the more minds we’ll have to create better solutions. As long as stigma is attached to addiction, there will continue to be an “us” and “them” mentality. The American people are strong, innovative, and courageous. Combine that with an unparalleled spirit of unity and patriotism – that creates the greatest of hopes, hope that this country will one day refuse to sacrifice life for livelihood, that it will refuse to accept the success of few on the backs of many, and hope that one day there will be no “us” and “them”, but only US.