LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas, along with the rest of the country, views opioids as more of a medical issue than a criminal one.
A state senator is asking: Why can’t it be the same for other drugs?
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, and her colleagues in the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus are working on an answer ahead of the 2019 legislative session. They believe the state needs to dive into its prison records to see which inmates should instead be getting treatment for mental health.
A recovering addict who had a taste of the prison system calls it the right move.
“It’s a pretty nice little gig I rallied up for myself,” said Kendal Covington as she grabs her camera from her desk at Goodwill. “Not real sure how it all came to pass, but it did.”
The nonprofit’s multimedia designer took different shots Tuesday of its high school for adults, The Excel Center.
The 23 year old watches people excel from behind the lens but just two years ago, she was the subject.
“I got chemically dependent on opiates before I really realized what happened,” Covington said. “When I was young, I never even thought that that would be my reality.”
She fed her opioid addiction by shoplifting, selling drugs and ultimately, switching to something stronger.
“I was an IV meth user before it was all said and done with,” she said.
Covington was in and out of county jail then served 14 months in the former Pine Bluff women’s prison.
“The meth left me in a mental state of dependency,” she said “It was an obsession. It gets to rolling, and it just goes. You can’t control it until you’re either dead, in jail or in a facility. It’s not really you making these criminal decisions. It’s your addiction.”
Covington believes the longer drug abusers are locked up, the more out of sight, out of mind they become. She said rehabilitation has to happen while behind bars, and it has to start with mental health.
“If you don’t have the money, if you don’t have health insurance, you don’t get help,” Sen. Elliott said. “You get locked up, and there is a better way than that. We’ve discovered that through the opioid crisis.”
Elliott believes the state should consider vacating sentences for non-violent offenders who have been locked up for years on drug charges, based on laws passed in the 90s.
“We were thinking, ‘Punishment, punishment,'” she said. “That was the flavor of the time.”
Elliott said it now must be rehabilitation.
“Not to do that just increases the racial and socioeconomic disparities that result in many people rotting away in prison,” she said.
Covington now sits behind a computer instead of behind bars because someone gave her a shot, and she took it.
“If you don’t try then you’ll never know or get to where you’re going,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s only you that you’re accountable for, and only you can make a difference for yourself.”
This is one of many prison reform issues the black caucus is working on ahead of 2019.
Elliott is bringing together the Arkansas Department of Correction, Arkansas State Police and family members of inmates at a committee meeting Thursday to talk through some of the concerns with the state’s prison system.