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Down and Out in Vermont

Heroin in the hills

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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But that does not mean, he goes on, that up-to-date, high-intensity police tactics can’t do something to help the city get its hands around the problem. Shortly after taking the Rutland job, he arranged a meeting with Anthony Braga, a criminologist at Harvard. Baker and the mayor went down to Cambridge to learn about “hot spot policing,” which you might think of as having evolved from the James Q. Wilson “broken windows” insight.

“It’s Wilson on steroids,” Baker says.

In the case of Rutland, the hot spot consists of a few square blocks less than half a mile from Baker’s office. It is where he wants his officers to be.

“We don’t need them in places where there isn’t any crime. We want the people who are selling the drugs and committing the crimes to know we’re there and that we know who they are and what they are up to and that we are going to bust them first chance we get.”

Baker, who plainly prefers action to talk, says, “You ought to go out with one of my officers and see for yourself.”

So a couple of days later, I arrive at the station as Sgt. Matthew Prouty and another Rutland cop are bringing in two women they have just arrested for selling heroin. One of the women is a staff nurse at a local old age home. Prouty and the other officer are tagging evidence, including several disposable hypodermics.

“I usually see these after they’ve been used and thrown away,” Prouty says. “I have to keep an eye out for them in the morning, when I’m running. They’re everywhere.”

Prouty was born and raised in Rutland and has been on the police force for 15 years. The only serious time he has spent anywhere else was a short hitch in the Army, where he was an MP. If you met him out of uniform, you would be unlikely to think “cop.” More likely “coach.” He’s serious, yes; intense, even, but without the big city, street-cop sheen of brutality and cynicism.

“Better buckle up,” he says when we are in his cruiser.

Prouty talks on the way to his town’s hot spot. In this case, the “his” is literal. “That’s my house, right there,” he says as we pass a handsome two-story Victorian where he lives with his wife, his four children, an adult brother, and his parents. The house is probably a hundred years old, Prouty says, built when this was still a thriving little town with an economy based largely on marble quarried from the mountains around the town. Many of the stone cutters came from Italy, where the quarries were nearing exhaustion. Rutland was a community of large, Catholic families and big houses.

The spreading trees and the old houses on the street where Prouty lives might give the neighborhood a solid, permanent feel if there were not so many windows boarded up with plywood and lawns littered with trash and if you did not see the occasional hand-painted sign telling druggies to stay away. When Prouty parks the cruiser across from a house that looks derelict, a woman comes out of the door. She is fat, tattooed, and wearing a dirty T-shirt. She yells something about always coming around and harassing people.

“We get that all the time,” Prouty says. “Means it’s working. We want them to see us. That one is a dealer. We know it, and she knows we know it.”

As we drive around the neighborhood, Prouty points out the drug houses, which would be easy enough to spot without his help.

“There was a drive-by the other night, right here,” he says.

“Anybody hurt?”

“No. Not that time.”

But then, he says, at the convenience store on the corner over there, a state trooper shot and killed a dealer from New York who was wanted in that state and by U.S. Marshals as well.

Drive-bys. Dealers dropped in the act of going for a gun. Lawn signs warning the druggies to stay away. It doesn’t seem right—not on these leafy streets in this little city with its splendid views of the mountains a mile or two distant.

“Tell me about it,” Prouty says.

On our way back to the station, we talk about what drugs have done to the town where he is raising his family. The town is hurting, he says. The quarries and the stone-cutting businesses are long since dead and gone. There are empty storefronts on every street in town. “Mainly, the businesses we see opening up are pawn shops. Four of them in the last year.”

There have been some violent crimes—the killing of that dealer, and a hostage situation in a drug house where Prouty himself took on an armed suspect and finally got him to surrender. But the “lesser” crimes are the real sickness, a kind of malaise that makes everyone’s life harder. “Property crimes,” Prouty says, “are what we deal with all the time and they almost always come back to drugs. People stealing for the money to buy drugs. That’s why we have the pawn shops. People breaking in houses and stealing jewelry.

“They steal anything they can sell. Copper. The catalytic converters out of cars. Electronics, of course. They’ll walk into Walmart and pick up a flat-screen television and just walk out with it.”

He and the rest of Baker’s officers do what they can. They make their presence known. They make arrests. But the numbers are not on their side. The state can lock up only so many and keep them only so long.

A suspect like the nurse he arrested earlier will go in front of a judge, be given a trial date, and released. “And what happens,” Prouty asks, “between the arrest and the trial? She’s still an addict and still needs her drugs.”

On the way out of Rutland’s little hot spot, on the way back to the station, Prouty points to three adjacent buildings. One is a public defender’s office. The next is a drug house. The last is a rehab center.

“Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?” he says.

A few days later, the police were called about an overdose in the neighborhood. It was in the house directly across the street from Prouty’s.

If Vermont cannot, as Chief Baker says, “arrest its way out of this problem,” then what else can it do? -Treatment and prevention are the obvious answers. So the state is energetically treating addicts and getting the word out, though it hardly seems necessary at this point to inform people that using heroin can lead to what are called, in the contemporary argot, “bad outcomes.” There is, you sometimes think, nothing left to be learned about the downside of drugs. Even the youngest users “know.” And in Vermont, that can be very young. Eighth graders, according to one teacher, are into heroin at her school. And perhaps a few younger than that. 

While it is hard to believe that Vermont’s heroin epidemic might have been prevented by more and better public service ads, increased “awareness” and better “messaging” cannot hurt.

As for treatment, the lessons of many years are not encouraging. It is expensive, and there are more relapses than cures. But Vermont is energetically working with the usual tools. The announcement of a November 2013 date for the opening of a local methadone clinic is a front page story in the Rutland Herald. The clinic, according to one official, would “initially serve about 50 patients who are presently making daily trips to New Hampshire to receive methadone.”

Well, the reader thinks, 50 sounds manageable. But then the official goes on to say that he “expects the number to grow gradually during the course of the clinic’s first year of operations. By the end of 2014, he said the facility, which will be open seven days a week, 365 days a year, is expected to serve 400 people.”

Cheryl McKenzie, who is also on the treatment side of Vermont’s fight against heroin, works with smaller numbers and has higher aspirations. She deals with addicts 10 at a time, all of them women and all of them in her program as an alternative to where they have just come from, which is jail.

McKenzie is as much a pro as Chief Jim Baker. She has been studying addiction and dealing with addicts “for 30 years. In eight different states.” She does not harbor illusions, but she has not given in to the temptations of cynicism and weariness. She is excited about something called “Mandala House” and what she calls “Graduated Transitional Living.”

The house is a little white clapboard structure not far from the state fairgrounds in Rutland. It is home to 10 women and, sometimes, as many as 2 infants or children. If they are not busted out of the program for failing to abide by its rules, the residents will stay at Mandala House for anywhere from 6 to 18 months. This, while they finish school, learn a trade, find work, learn how to live a life of routine, and, most of all, stay off drugs.

The rules are spelled out, clearly, in a notebook. The residents, some of them mothers, are reminded that:

* Clothes, towels, shoes, etc. are to be hung up, or put away.

and

* Inappropriate music degrading women, talks of drugs or violence will not be allowed.

and that they could be terminated for

* MIA or lying about where you have been.

This means going back to jail. And there is no honor system when it comes to drug use. The residents are subjected to frequent and random urinalysis—a “UA” in their parlance.

But Mandala House is not jail. It is clean, well lighted, and well staffed. At a regular staff meeting, which I am allowed to observe, McKenzie sits with eight other women to discuss the progress each resident is, or is not, making toward the day when she can leave with a good chance that she will not go back to doing drugs and more jail time.

“I’d consider a 60 percent success rate is a realistic target,” McKenzie says. “That’s what we are aiming for.”

To the outsider, that seems both high and low. One hears, anecdotally, about the low odds for long-term success with drug programs. Which accounts for methadone clinics. They deliver “maintenance,” not a cure. McKenzie is attempting to rebuild the women who pass through Mandala House. She calls them “ladies” and she has high expectations. She wants—no, demands—that they finish school, learn skills, get jobs, even start businesses.

“That can be an easier road for some of these ladies,” McKenzie explains, “since most employers are reluctant to hire someone with a felony record. And a lot of our ladies have long sheets.”

All very admirable, I think, as I sit at the table and listen as the staff discusses routine administrative stuff. How did this “lady” do on her GED? Did that one make it to her job interview? What about that argument two residents had over the washing machines? And so on.

But what about, you know, the cost of the thing? Ten addicts and two of their kids, housed and fed and under the care and supervision of almost as many staff people.

“The Department of Corrections tells us that it costs about $75,000 a year to incarcerate a woman in Vermont,” McKenzie says. “Mandala House comes in at less than one-fourth of that.”

One of the women at the table—sensing my skepticism, perhaps—says firmly, “You know what the real problem is?”

I expect that the answer is going to be people like me, who don’t understand what they, McKenzie and the members of her staff, are up against here. People who have no compassion. Who think only in terms of what it costs. Who don’t care about the kind of suffering that the residents of this house have experienced.

“Uh .  .  . no,” I say.

“We are enabling these people.”

“Really? How?”

“We make it too easy for them.”

Heads nod, all around the table.

“There are so many programs. So much assistance. This is a good place to be an addict and a single mom.”

The woman is not exactly angry and this is not the usual political rant against welfare mothers and paternalistic government. I’m the one who is supposed to be giving that familiar speech. This woman works for the paternalistic government, after all, and her clients are welfare mothers. Her words are spoken out of a deep frustration. And it is shared, around the table, as women nod and detail the various programs by their acronyms—WIC, EBT, etc.

“If you are a single mom in Vermont and you have a cell phone,” one woman says, “then you just need to dial 211 and you will be talking to a real person who will tell you what the programs are and how you can get on them. You can be an addict and a mom and be taken care of.”

This discussion went on for a while, and I suppose I was, if not shocked, then at the least, very surprised. So much so, that I merely listened, nodded, and took a few notes. What the woman told me was confirmed, a few days later, when I was talking with a prosecutor in Bennington about the big sweep there that had netted 60 dealer-users.

“I did some research,” he said. “And it turned out that almost 50 of those people were on some kind of public assistance.”

Later, of course, I came around to the obvious. Of course the staff at McKenzie’s ambitious Mandala House program are frustrated even as they continue to soldier on. They are dealing with grown women who have to be told, like children, “Clothes, towels, shoes, etc. are to be hung up, or put away.” And some of these women have children themselves. Who would not be frustrated at having to administer random urinalysis to these women to make sure they have not gone back to the needle, which got them into jail before they were given a chance to come here, and which will get them sent back if the UA comes up dirty?

The frustration of the ordinary citizen is nothing against theirs. A friend who owns a plant a few miles from where we are sitting has had trouble finding drug-free employees, and one of the addicts who slipped through the cracks stole several thousand feet of copper wire, which he sold at a local scrap yard.

Jim Baker’s police had no trouble making the bust. The addict lost his job, making it that much harder for him to support his habit.

But the cycle, if it is that, is most poignantly and immediately apprehended, and the frustration most urgently felt, by people like Cheryl McKenzie who deal with addicts who are the children of addicts and who have children themselves.

One of them was newly in residence on the day I visited Mandala House, and McKenzie wanted me to talk to her.

She is 32, the woman tells me. Just out of jail. She has been an addict since she was 13. She grew up here, in Rutland, and her mother was an addict and a dealer. She has had four children herself. All by different fathers. One was born while she was in jail.

Her story, which she tells in tight, rich detail, is sad and familiar. Boring to listen to, fascinating for her to tell. Addicts, as we’ve all come to learn, find the stories of their own degradation compelling and tragic. What, after all, is addiction but a kind of sublime narcissism, chemically induced?

The woman goes on, about this arrest, that jail term, this baby, that deal.

“Have you,” I interrupt, “ever tried rehab before this?”

“Yes,” she says, “11 times.”

“Why—”

But before I can complete the question, she interrupts.

“No, 13.”

And this time?

“You get older and you want a change. I really want to change my life. I’ve been working for Habitat for Humanity, the last few days. Pounding nails.”

And ultimately?

“I want to be a hair stylist. Or do psychiatric work.”

For now, she is a resident at Mandala House, where the published rules remind her to hang up her clothes. Her children are dispersed. One with a father. Two are with grandparents. One has been adopted.

The staff at Mandala House will do their best with her, and it is impossible not to wish them well or admire their dedication and tough-mindedness. If you live in the state, you feel a certain undeniable pride in the way that they, like Jim Baker and Matt Prouty, are taking on the problem. There is a measure of the old Vermont spirit of yeomanry about it, which is something that many who have adopted the state and its values (again, like me) find ineluctably seductive. The city of Rutland, after all, was built on an industry that amounted to blasting and transporting and cutting hard rock for sale to people who lived lives of considerably more comfort in other places. Many of the graves at Gettysburg are marked by headstones made of Vermont marble, and many of the men whose bodies lie in the ground beneath them were from Vermont, which had among the highest per capita losses of any Union state in that war.

This heroin invasion, though, is a different kind of fight. The enemy is an alternative sensibility, one that is exactly contrary to that older spirit. Heroin is the agent of total surrender. The drug of demoralization.

The vitality of Vermont—and places that are like Vermont—has been leached away over the years. This is no fresh insight, merely a lamentable fact. The quarries shut down, like the factories along the Connecticut River Valley, and like the little farms where everything that came out of the ground was watered with sweat, and people took their pride in “making do.” One of the first of these Vermonters I got to know would tell me of how, when he was a kid, he and his brother were responsible for laying in the firewood necessary to warm the drafty old farmhouse that was home to a family of 10. They cut and split 60 cords of firewood every summer. With hand tools.

There was less and less for the generations that followed. And the familiar pathologies took root and spread: unemployment, dependency, illegitimacy, drugs. One generation, then two, and now three or four. The woman I met at Cheryl McKenzie’s Mandala House had been raised (more or less) by a single mother. She has four illegitimate children of her own, none of whom was mothered or nurtured in any real sense. This is the pathology of the inner city, the advent of the much prophesied “white underclass.” People have seen it coming for years, yet none of the big-think solutions seems to have worked or even gotten off the ground. So we have mothers who are addicted when they give birth to children who will never know their fathers. Among live births at the Rutland hospital, about one in seven is to an addicted mother. This led to the creation of another program. This one known as Babies and Mothers Beginning In-Sync. Or, BAMBI.

The trend is not unique to Vermont, as the example of places where methamphetamine abuse is rampant makes plain. Vermont, so far, has mostly been spared that vector of the plague. But not the idleness, dependency, and demoralization.

Still, the police are willing to stand up to the gangs, and the women at Mandala House are not afraid to tell an addicted mother to hang up her clothes.

So there is hope.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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