A Prison Drug Recovery Unit Provides Refuge, If You’re Abstinent

    At South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF), a Tennessee prison privately operated by CoreCivic, those of us in general population are spread across three units inside the same fenced-in area. In a separate fenced-in area, maybe 100 yards away at the top of a hill, is a peer recovery unit called Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP).

    “It’s a prison within a prison,” Felix*, 44, told Filter. “It felt like I was going to a different prison. Even though it’s just a block from here.”

    RDAP uses the “therapeutic community” model that’s popular in state and federal prisons. The term loosely refers to longer-term residential treatment centers where participants play an active role in each other’s abstinence-based recovery.

    RDAP lasts nine to 12 months, with some exceptions based on individual needs or “resistance to intervention.” But participants enter the program voluntarily, for many reasons. The unit’s 128 beds stay full.

    “I owed money for drugs I couldn’t pay. It felt like a good time to change the scenery.”

    Along with those in the mental health pod nearby, RDAP participants eat separately from the main compound, go to a separate rec yard, and really only cross paths with general population prisoners at the occasional medical appointment or in the library. Therapeutic communities are meant to remove the participant from the environment and people that facilitated their drug use. Which, in addition to those seeking abstinence-based recovery like Felix, has made RDAP popular among those seeking refuge from drug debt.

    “I failed a piss test and I was told they were going to move me to a rough unit, plus I owed … money for drugs I couldn’t pay,” Michael*, 32, told Filter. “It felt like a good time to change the scenery. At that time I wasn’t interested in being sober, just needed a safe harbor.”

    There are also many people who pursue RDAP because it was recommended by the Tennessee Board of Parole. It’s common for those with drug-related convictions to enter RDAP when their parole review is on the horizon; some are even told they’ll get a hearing if they complete the program.

    In July 2022, Tennessee enacted a “truth in sentencing” law that made nine different felonies “100-percent” convictions—people with those convictions must serve 100 percent of their sentence, with no chance at parole or any kind of sentencing reduction earned through “good behavior.” It made another 11 felonies “85-percent” convictions. Those of us sentenced to life with parole, meanwhile, must serve over half a century in prison before we become eligible for it. The Board has to let some people out.

    “They give you a drug test, and most people ‘fail.’ But after two or three weeks, if you ‘fail’ then you get kicked out.”

    RDAP’s goal is to decrease the proportion of drug-positive urinalysis tests among participants, relative to when they first came into the program. Neither CoreCivic nor the Tennessee Department of Corrections responded to Filter‘s request for comment.

    “Going in you sign a lot of paperwork agreeing to the terms. They give you a drug test, and most people ‘fail’,” Felix said. “But after two or three weeks, if you ‘fail’ then you get kicked out.”

    At SCCF, all the treatment and mental health resources are up on the hill; general population has nothing. Even Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous aren’t held anymore.

    Like most group-based treatment programs both in and out of prison, none of the treatment at RDAP is drug-specific. Michael, who was using mostly methamphetamine when he went into the program, would attend the same groups as Felix, who was using mostly opioids. RDAP doesn’t offer buprenorphine to ease withdrawal, or any other medications for opioid use disorder.

    “You see a lot of people who are just coming in going through withdrawals, and that’s a rough time,” Felix said. “They’ll have to leave group to go throw up and stuff.”

    The curricula emphasize journaling—a lot of it—and group activities like role-playing different scenarios people might encounter outside the program. In “Victim Impact,” participants list the primary and secondary victims of their drug use and describe how they were harmed. In “Changing Your Bad Habits,” they learn the 3 Ms: Modify your environment; monitor your behavior; make commitments. Most groups run two or three times a week, except AA and NA, which meet every few hours so that everyone attends at least once a day.

    “The noise is low. Everything is calm, unlike the normal units. I really miss that.”

    In a way, RDAP is peer-led. There are four counselors and a treatment manager who pop in and out, but for the most part the groups are run by incarcerated facilitators. In many ways it can be a healing environment where many participants have a good experience, regardless of why they went in.

    “We all had a common situation—we like drugs, and the prison doesn’t want us to have them,” Felix said. “So, how are we going to cope?”

    No one at RDAP has a job they get paid for, but they’re paid to participate in the program starting at 22 cents an hour, with the potential to earn up to 44 cents an hour. The peer facilitators can make 50 cents an hour. All daytime hours, participants are either in groups, at meals or doing their assigned job duties. No phone or TV until nighttime. Anyone being too loud will get sanctioned, and have to write an extra essay or do extra chores.

    “You really don’t see any violence. The noise is low. Everything is calm, unlike the normal units,” Felix said. “I really miss that a lot. It’s hard to concentrate in gen pop; it gives me the jitters. You’re always having to look over your shoulder.”

    “I could get pot and meth when I wanted it, I could manage it, and it would benefit me. But … it’s always risky.”

    RDAP shares a common shortfall with residential treatment programs in the free world. Once people graduate, they have no continuity of care. They return to the same environment they were in before the program; the same people and the same drugs. So the cycle continues.

    “I really think if I could get pot and meth when I wanted it, I could manage it, and it would benefit me,” Michael said. “But in here, it’s impossible to ever really know how pure the stuff is. It’s always risky.”

    In addition to SCCF lacking in any sort of recovery support for the general population, there’s also another problem: Unpaid drug debts are not forgotten in the nine or 12 months someone was away at RDAP.

    For all of these reasons, people often try to get transferred to another facility upon completion of the program, but they often end up back on the compound anyway.

    Felix went into RDAP in 2022, completed it in under nine months and has maintained his goal of abstinence since then. Michael did a full stint, graduated, and is currently doing the program again.



    *Names have been changed for sources’ protection.

    Photograph via Federal Bureau of Prisons

    • Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He’s also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.


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