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Exclusive interview: The Program co-founder Chris Wolcott on a new approach to addiction punishment

The jail administrator and cofounder of The Program is Chris Wolcott. Pic credit: Discovery+

The new Discovery+ series The Program is about the Sevier County residential substance abuse program. It will begin streaming Wednesday and shows how the war on drugs has failed and how rethinking the problem allows people the chance to change.

DeQueen, Arkansas, is not a bustling center of commerce. Yet, like many small and forgotten American towns, it is filled with people grappling with economic stress, generational addiction behaviors, and educational gaps that combine for a troubling spike in continued drug usage and ongoing addiction rates.

Meth, opiates, alcohol, or all three and more combine to obliterate the bleak existences for so many people who live there. This fact demonstrated over time just wore on lawman Sheriff Robert Gentry, the sheriff, and jail administrator Chris Wolcott, who had dealt with the issues for so long. They knew a different approach to rehabilitation, and the traditional prison route had to change to fix their devastated community.

America’s never-ending drug epidemic rages on, with different drugs taking the spotlight. However, The Program offers a real-time insider look at the work of the Sevier County, Arkansas jail staff.

The series interviews and records the inmates (trustees once they begin the program) who will either serve hard time, sometimes upwards of 70 years in prison, or show a desire to enter The Program, the last chance effort to have their prison sentences erased—if they successfully graduate from the program and adhere to the rules set forth by its administrators.

Program creators Robert Gentry, the sheriff, and administrator Chris Wolcott, who Monsters & Critics interviewed by phone this past week, have put a supportive team together who will do everything they can to set the trustees up for success within the program and when they renter society.

The Program has a 72% success rate and is now in its 14th iteration. The “trustees” meet with a team of specialists attending classes and maintaining a rigorous work schedule within the jail. In addition, their system offers qualified trustees the chance to walk free if they graduate from an unprecedented three-month drug rehabilitation program.

It’s the last and best chance for these people who, if accepted, must honestly reveal their demons and forge some healing in the damaged relationships with their family and friends.

The work is complex, the days are long, and the taste of life behind bars can help crystallize why they are medicating themselves to the point of achieving a non-functional, criminal status.

Exclusive interview with The Program cocreator and jail administrator, Chris Wolcott:

Monsters & Critics: When did you realize that something had to change as a law enforcement professional? Just locking people up for drugs wasn’t going to fix the problem?

Chris Wolcott: I started my career in law enforcement in my mid-twenties. And when I first started, I thought that everybody I arrested needed to go to prison, and if they didn’t get the maximum sentence going to prison, I wasn’t happy. But as I got older, I started to realize that we need more time to help people. So I felt like there was a need for something different, but I could never make a change until I became the administrator in 2016.

And then, I became an administrator along with Sheriff Robert Gentry. So we were in a position to make changes that we felt needed to be made.

M&C: When I watched this, some powerful powerful words came to me, despair, education, or lack thereof, structure, and opportunity. Talk to me about what those words mean to you and with regards to the people in DeQueen?

Chris Wolcott: Well, when I took over as prison administrator, I realized we had a lot of ideas that we throw at people to make a difference in their lives. But as we started, I realized that my ideas didn’t necessarily work for them as we got into this.

I’ve got to listen to what they need and try to bring things to the table that will help them because we expect people to be a certain norm, but their norm is not the same as ours. When we’re dealing with people, we’re asking them to be good parents. And they don’t know how, because they’ve never had good parents in their lives. They’ve never had positive role models for teaching them those. And they ended up having a lack of hope.

And every mother who walks into this jail with the hopes their child will be in this program has got the same look on their face, the same thing in their eyes. Lots of hope, they’ve given up. And it’s like they’re begging for one last chance. And when you tell them that their child has made the program, you can see that light in their eyes. It was a glimmer of hope.

And I’m giving you an actual example. My mom, I’ve got a little brother who’s in addiction. He’s still in addiction. And he went through this program, and he didn’t make it. My mom, who had blamed herself for years for his drug addiction, now realizes it’s not her fault. And he chooses to be that way because he’s got the tools, and he’s got the resources, and he’s got the support group around him to pick him up out of it. So there’s a lot of family healing in all of this,

M&C: People say, well, how do we fix homelessness? There is no one clear answer. I feel like the same is for drug addiction. Do you agree with that?

Chris Wolcott: Everyone’s story is different. Everybody has their own story, and what works for one person won’t work for another person. And pretty much what it is, is taking a poor attitude and just starting by saying, you know what? We care. We care about you as a person, and we’re willing to go to lengths to make your life better.

Well, that’s how we can help you. Allow us to help you. Then basically look at him and say, you know what? I believe in you. I think you can make it. And when you look at a grown man, and you tell him,’ I believe in you, you can make it.’ And he has tears running down his cheeks, and he looked at me, and he said, no one has ever told me that before?

It seems like it makes them begin and try and desire to do better and improve their life, not just drug addiction, but in life in general. People need to hear that other people believe in them.

M&C: Do you think that in depressed, financially stressed areas like in DeQueen and every small town in America where industry and opportunities to pass them by that we need to teach children in the public school system that they are valuable, that they matter, and their actions matter. I feel like that’s gone out of our schools.

Chris Wolcott: Yes. We need to start with our youth. We need to do more education. Not only, not only just education, here’s the police officer. ‘Here’s the drug dog, so don’t do drugs.’ That doesn’t work.

They need to hear real-life stories and testimonies that help them make those life choices. And, but the biggest thing is we need to break the stigma that’s associated with addiction. It covers all classes and all races, and all economic statuses. It doesn’t matter. And we’ve got to break that stigma so that when people need help, they’re willing to ask for it. And they’re not embarrassed.

M&C: Most everybody knows money talks, rich people don’t go to jail like these poorer people

Chris Wolcott: Money definitely impacts the justice system. Yes. I agree.

M&C: Poor people will end up in jail, but to your point, and I think what The Program does beautifully is whatever your politics are, everybody agrees that when you put a little extra money towards that stem addiction problem and helping them rehabilitate, it more often than not works. I think The Program proved that.

Chris Wolcott: Our Program doesn’t look at economic status. The Program doesn’t look at race or care about your financial status. We care about you as a person and trying to help you in your recovery journey.

And we’ve branched out. And we have an amazing 85% support in our community. And our community has bought in, and the community is on board, asking us, what can we do?

For example, an individual in our Capitol a couple of months ago, one of our community projects was coming out of our jail. The answer I got was that nobody else is stepping up to the plate and doing it.

M&C: I feel that Camron Threadgill would be an incredible addition to the Program team. Do you have people who graduate from the Program or get through it and want to work with you?

Camron Threadgill is admitted to The Program. Pic credit: discovery+

Chris Wolcott: When we started four years ago, we struggled to find volunteers that would come in for facilitators with our different programs.

Currently, we have several graduates that come back into our jail, hear their testimony, and facilitate different programs. So yes, Camron Threadgill, I made that argument in that round table. I argued that he’s a young man who doesn’t have a criminal history.

I’ve watched him grow up, and he could very quickly become a statistic by sending him to the Arkansas department of corrections and be locked in the system forever. But, on the other hand, Camron has the potential to come back and be a great leader in our community.

M&C: In subtle ways The Program addresses some racial divisions in this country. If someone like Camron can be brought into the kind of work you are doing, more of that will help police in racially diverse neighborhoods do their job better. Do you agree with that or not?

Chris Wolcott: The problem with our country right now is it doesn’t seem like anybody is listening to each other. And when you try to voice your opinion, you try to express your story and feel like no one’s listening. So you get frustrated, and things start to fall apart. And that’s what we try to do.

We try to bring everybody to the table and give them a voice about the problem and a voice in the solution. And if people start listening to one another, you see things get a whole lot better.

M&C: Do you feel that opioids are more of a problem now than meth, or is it just equal?

Chris Wolcott: Opiates have always been a problem, but the opiate problem here has been prescription pills. Even right now, opiates in a prescription form it has been a significant issue. And as the state tries to tighten up on the opiate prescription, we expect to see the heroin vacuum coming behind it.

And if you stop and you think about it, a person who’s addicted to opiates, like Hydrocodone, they don’t consider themselves addicts. And their medication is given to them by a doctor not to feel like they’re an addict, but actually, they are.

So we’ve been pushing and trying to do many educational programs here in our county. And I know they all across the state because it’s legal doesn’t mean you’re not an addict and don’t need help.

Yes, you’re right. It’s a slow death. And often, it’s a death that’s happening, and people don’t even realize it until it’s too late.

M&C: How do you feel about medical marijuana for pain management for seniors who don’t want to take opioids and then recreational marijuana that is opening like in Colorado and California?

Chris Wolcott: I’m not a medical provider. Therefore I can’t give you a medical opinion. I’m going to look at medical marijuana, similar to how I view alcohol. The more available substances and easy to get their hands on, people with addictive behavior—without the proper education—can cause a problem.

And I’m afraid that marijuana usage is something that’s going to create more problems in our youth. We spent years on the stamp out smoking campaign. We’re just throwing in the towel on marijuana usage. I will say that there is probably a place for it. I’m not going to go out and say that I am dead set against it, but I think it’s something that we need to study and keep an eye on.

The first three episodes of the Discovery+ series The Program that reports on the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department’s Residential Substance Abuse Treatment begins streaming Wednesday, August 25.

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