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Jim Kenyon: Dismas keynote speaker an example that ‘treatment works’

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/26/2019 10:12:23 PM
Modified: 3/26/2019 10:12:24 PM

William Moyers has never spent time behind bars — unless you count one night in a police station holding cell 40 years ago — but he still can relate to what many residents of Hartford Dismas House go through.

Drugs and alcohol were Moyers’ demons for 20 years. Dismas, the nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing in a group setting for people just out of prison, has no shortage of residents — past and present — who have battled substance use disorders. It’s often what landed them in prison in the first place and prevents them from staying out of trouble.

Moyers will be the keynote speaker at Hartford Dismas House’s annual fundraising dinner on April 14 at Hilton Garden Inn in Lebanon.

For baby boomers, like myself, the name William Moyers has a familiar ring. His father, Bill Moyers, hosted a PBS public affairs program off-and-on, starting in 1972, for years and was a CBS News analyst in the 1980s. Before embarking on his broadcasting career, for which he won a dozen Emmy Awards, Moyers was President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.

William Moyers followed his famous father and mother, Judith, a TV news producer, into the news biz. But crack cocaine and alcohol took over.

Moyers’ memoir, Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption, was a New York Times bestseller in 2006. After I finished reading it last week, I see why.

In 1988, Moyers was a 29-year-old reporter at Newsday on Long Island, N.Y., when he tried crack.

“That first hit off the crack pipe marked the exact moment when I turned my back on marijuana, warm whiskey, cold beer, chilled vodka tonics, and powdered cocaine,” he wrote. “Crack was everything I had ever wanted, and it gave me everything I had ever needed.”

Over the next five years, Moyers’ parents literally pulled him out of crack houses in Harlem and Atlanta, where he worked for CNN, to get him into treatment.

Three times he relapsed.

By his own admission, Moyers was lucky. His family had the means to pay for four stays at inpatient treatment centers when they weren’t covered by health insurance benefits.

His last name came in handy as well. In December 1980, Moyers was a 21-year-old college senior home for the holidays in Garden City, N.J., when he joined friends from high school at a neighborhood bar.

Before the night was over, Moyers, in a drunken stupor, had smashed a window at a fish market next door and crawled inside. He filled his pockets with $20 in change that he found on the counter.

When he started back through the window, “two squad cars and four Garden City policemen were waiting,” Moyers wrote.

His father wrote a $5,000 check to a prominent defense attorney for a retainer fee. The prosecutor reduced the charge from burglary, a felony, to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. The judge went along. It probably didn’t hurt that CBS News’ Dan Rather wrote to the judge on Moyers’ behalf.

In a phone interview, I asked Moyers about the incident. At the time, it was written off as a “college prank,” he said. “But I was an alcoholic and didn’t know it.”

That was only the beginning.

“There were many times in my life when it was only a matter of seconds or inches that kept me out of prison,” he said, referring to the close calls he had while driving under the influence of crack and booze.

Then there were the frequent drug deals he made on street corners to support his addiction.

“I should have been like millions of other Americans who have been incarcerated as result of their illness,” he said.

The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Providence, R.I., estimates that at least half of U.S. prison inmates “committed the act they are incarcerated for while under the influence of drugs.”

Moyers will share his story at the dinner celebrating Hartford Dismas’ fifth anniversary. The deadline for purchasing tickets, which are $75 each, is April 4. Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan is the emcee.

Hartford Dismas is part of Dismas of Vermont, which also has two houses in Burlington and one in Rutland. The nonprofit organization was started in the early 1980s by Rita McCaffrey and her husband, Francis, a former Vermont judge who died last year.

As I’ve written before, Dismas is one of the best things going for Vermont’s criminal justice system.

For $80 a week, residents get room and board while they reintegrate back into society. They get help finding jobs and connecting with social services.

Vermont taxpayers benefit, too. It costs more than $60,000 a year to keep an offender behind bars in Vermont. At Dismas, the cost is about $22,000 a year.

On the weekend of the Dismas fundraiser, Moyers will come to town early to talk with residents over breakfast on Sunday morning at the house in Hartford Village.

Eight of the 10 current residents at Hartford Dismas have had serious addiction issues, House Director Jeff Backus, a former Vermont corrections officer, told me, “And the other two weren’t perfect either.”

Hearing from someone with Moyers’ background gives people hope that “recovery is possible,” Backus said.

Moyers, 59, is now vice president of public affairs and community relations at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota. A former patient at Hazelden, one of the country’s leading chemical dependency treatment centers, Moyers does about 50 speaking engagements a year.

“Those of us who have recovered have to be willing to talk about it the same way we talk about cancer, diabetes and other diseases,” he said. “I’m a prime example that addiction doesn’t discriminate and treatment works but not always the first time.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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