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Prison - The Inside Story - Freedom Behind Bars

Becoming alcohol dependent is rarely, if ever, a conscious choice, but many prisoners find themselves behind bars as a result of crimes committed whilst under the influence of alcohol.  At the present time there are approximately, 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales of which 63% are described as hazardous drinkers(1). Whilst inmates are in prison, and perhaps not using alcohol, factors which may contribute to continued abuse on relapse can be addressed. They can begin to benefit from the 12-step recovery programme of A.A. whilst incarcerated.  The time spent in confinement can be used in developing the mind and spirit so that they can look outward instead of inward, which will help them try and live with society as it is and not as they would want it to be and learn tolerance towards others and accept responsibility for actions taken etc. It is possible for an inmate to learn that he or she can live the AA way of life prior to discharge. This will assist them to live a more serene life during the period of incarceration, despite all the pressures.

The first Prison Group was formed in 1942 in San Quentin Prison by the San Francisco Group of Alcoholics Anonymous. San Quentin’s enlightened and liberal warden Clinton T. Duffy was of great assistance in helping set up the group. A handful of San Quentin inmates after reading the book Alcoholics Anonymous approached the prison authorities to announce that they had decided that they were alcoholics and wanted to do something about it to prevent further disaster after their release. Despite ridicule of being dubbed “winos” by their fellow inmates and the bantering challenges of sceptics, this nucleus won the support of the Captain of the Yard Joseph H. Fletcher and Warden Clinton T. Duffy and with a small appropriation by the Board of Prison Directors for books and pamphlets from the library fund, the Group was up and running.

Initially, the San Quentin Prison Group was met by scepticism by both guards and prisoners alike until an incident happened that was the catalyst that changed things for the Prison Group. An alcoholic prisoner who had developed amazing ingenuity in making alcohol within the prison made a batch of alcohol using materials from the prison paint shop that proved to be deadly poisonous. After drinking the substance several of the inmates died and in the following hours the fatalities began to mount. Nothing but quick blood transfusions could save those still alive and the San Quentin AA Group stepped in giving blood and helping the poisoned inmates through the crisis, and many pulled through. Up until this point AA had not been a popular organisation outside of the group itself, but many of the survivors joined up and the breakthrough had been achieved. Soon after, groups were up and running in Indiana and Illinois State Prisons and the message spread rapidly after that throughout United States and Canada. By 1963 there were 502 registered Prison Groups with approximately 20,000 members. Today there is a meeting in almost every prison in both these countries. At the 2005 Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention held in Toronto, the current Warden of San Quentin Prison Jill Brown was presented with the 25th millionth copy of AA’s “The Big Book”. The book was given on behalf of all the prisons and their inmate populations where the AA message of hope is welcomed. 

The first Prison Group in the UK was formed in Wakefield Prison on the 27th December, 1958 when the Leeds Group of Alcoholics Anonymous responded to a request from a prisoner who had learned of AA whilst imprisoned in the US. As this meeting was treated as an experiment for a period of five years, no other Prison Groups were formed in England and Wales until 1963. After this time, as prisoners were moved around the country, they would make contact with AA to request help in getting a group started in the prison and AA prison groups began to flourish. At present around 95 prisons in England and Wales have active AA groups.   

The first Prison Group in Scotland was formed in Barlinne Prison, Glasgow in 1960. The editor of the Scottish Daily Express had learned of the AA experience in American Prisons and was keen to see if AA could be introduced to Scottish Prisons. He made contact with AA in Scotland and found a group of AA members willing to help start an AA Group in Barlinne Prison. A few weeks later a meeting was set up in the prison. As in England and Wales, as prisoners were moved around the prison system in Scotland, they made requests for meetings to be set up in other prisons and soon meetings were being held in Peterhead, Edinburgh, Perth and Greenock prisons, where AA meetings are still taking place. All the prisons in Scotland have thriving AA groups.

As Alcoholics Anonymous does not hold records of individual members, it is difficult to establish how many of its current membership first made contact with AA while in prison but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those who attend prison, meetings continue to attend AA on release and go on to lead sober and worthwhile lives on the outside.
 
The following is an extract from a personal sharing of a member who found AA in prison. “AA has transformed the lives of many inmates, to my knowledge. Our actions and thoughts have been put on a more positive footing. We try to practice the programme in our daily living. This would be impossible if the hand of AA was not there to help and guide us. We no longer feel the pain, frustration, loneliness and fear that accompany the active alcoholic. We have thrown off the chains that bound us. Today we have freedom."(2)       


(1) Figures from the Office of National Statistics.
(2) Reprinted from Share magazine 1998