A Way Out
They were trapped in their addictions. Then came a woman named Angel.
By Sara Bongiorni
Every morning for years Rachel Wilson woke with a prayer. Please, God, let me die today.
But the Navy veteran who had guided F14s for the Navy in Puerto Rico did not leave the matter to God’s hands. Wilson attempted suicide multiple times amid spiraling addiction to computer-cleaning dust.
Inhaling the potentially deadly chemical dust numbed the pain of domes-tic violence that started after her husband began using cocaine. “I thought my daughter would be better off without me,” says Wilson, 38.
She cycled in and out of jail and hospitals in Florida and Texas, binged on dust that deprived her brain of oxygen, got sober, started huffing again.
She lived on the streets, slept in alleys and under bridges, went days without eating, weeks without speaking to anyone. Her weight dropped from 125 to 86 pounds. In time she lost custody of her daughter.
Injury compounded guilt and shame after her husband’s death from an overdose. The loss set off another binge on dust. “He was a good person,” Wilson says. “Drugs do horrible things to people.”
In 2017, she was hit by a car as she walked along a highway in Pearl River. There are three metal plates and 189 tiny screws in her face, which is numb on the right side. The accident broke ribs, her back and her neck in two places, left her blind in her right eye.
She was arrested for shoplifting in 2018 after passing out on the bathroom floor of a Wal-Mart in Lafayette, a can of computer dust beside her.
Wilson landed in prison in Baton Rouge. She spent 45 days there. She kept asking God to let her die. Instead, she has turned her life around, with a hand from the new East Baton Rouge Parish Pre-Trial Release Program.
Twenty-eight people have completed the Bridge Center for Hope program that moves low-level offenders with substance abuse or mental health challenges out of jail and into treatment.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provided initial funding for a pilot of the multi-agency program two years ago.
Program graduates include Larry Milton, 60, a 1978 alumnus of McKinley High School who drank and used drugs daily for 34 years until his arrest for cocaine possession in September 2018.
The soft-spoken Milton, who towers at six-feet, five inches, passed on an offer out of high school to play basketball at Grambling and went to work in construction. He was always a family man, fond of brushing his daughters’ hair when they were little and cooking favorites like red beans and rice.
But he squandered what he earned, spent as much as $3,000 a month on drugs and alcohol. He lost jobs, his marriage broke up. He did stints in jail for drug possession.
Milton had a history of rising to a challenge: He was expelled from school in the third-grade—he never learned why—and missed fourth- and fifth-grade yet still managed to graduate from McKinley, where he ran track and played basketball.
He could not imagine life without drugs. “I saw myself as a controlled user,” Milton says.
He spent 28 days in rehab through the pre-trial program, then moved into a halfway house near downtown.
He got a job filling and boxing king cakes, then applied for a position with an industrial construction firm. Through rehab he learned how to say no to friends he’d drunk and done drugs with for years. The gravity of substance abuse hit home with the death of his look-alike older brother from drinking-related liver failure.
He completed the pre-trial program in April. He attends sobriety meetings five or six times a week and will continue to do so. He spends time with his fiancée, cooking and watching sports—golf, tennis, basketball, track and field. His head is clear.
His daughters tell him how proud they are of him.
“I felt trapped with no way out,” Milton says. “It showed me a way to live without drugs and alcohol, that life is a whole lot easier without them.”
Angel Rushing is a licensed social worker and the plain-spoken, down-to-earth heart of the pre-trial program. On a June afternoon, Rushing lays out how the program works to four women seated across from her on a bench in the call-out room, a sort of make-shift courtroom at the jail that serves as her office.
The women, all arrested days earlier on drug charges, wait with an air of nervous expectation. They do not know what Rushing is going to tell them. She breaks the ice with a joke.
“I hope nobody’s missing a nail appointment,” she says. The women laugh. One tells Rushing that inmates talk about her.
“They say if you see a lady with salt-and-pepper hair and a polo shirt she is going to help you.”
Already the women have been vetted by the district attorney’s office for offenses that would disqualify them from the program, such as gun charges, or violent or sexual crimes.
“You all are what you call low-risk, public-safety people,” Rushing begins.
That’s a good thing, right? One of the women asks.
“That’s a very good thing,” Rushing answers.
She moves to the point. The women are candidates for a voluntary program that will allow them to get out of jail and have their charges dropped. But they will have to stick to a rigorous case-management plan that includes 28 days in rehab followed by five months in supervised housing—a halfway house.
They will have to get jobs and go to work during the program. If they don’t comply with the rules—say, fail a drug test or miss a monthly court appearance with Judge Don Johnson in the 19th Judicial District Court—they will be re-arrested and brought back to jail to wait for trial.
“This is a trust program,” she says.
Rushing comes to a larger point. The program isn’t about getting out of jail, she tells them. “This is about giving you a chance to change your life,” Rushing says.
She doesn’t use the word hope, but that is what’s visible on the faces of the four women. “This is about getting you better,” she continues. “This is about giving you time to figure things out and make your lives better.”
She repeats a point she made at the outset.
“This is voluntary, up to you.”
The women are silent for a moment, then pepper Rushing with questions.
Does it cost? No.
How do you get a job while you are in rehab? You get a job after rehab.
What happens if you mess up? We’ll bring you back to jail.
What rehab do you go to? It depends.
Is it for different age groups? I have people 19 to 57 in it.
The decision to enter the program might seem obvious at first take, but the exchange demonstrates that it can involve painful choices. One of the women has two children under age 10. She says she will have the option of waiting for trial at home if she wears an ankle monitor. She doesn’t know how she would pay for that, but it would allow her to see her children, something she is desperate to do.
“Let me sleep on it,” she tells Rushing.
Another woman has no hesitation. “I am going to do it,” she says.
One of the four is quieter than the others. She sits at the end of the bench, hands folded on her lap, head dipped.
Debbie Norwood, the program’s community-resource officer who works hand-in-hand with Rushing, has been watching and listening.
“What do you think, Quiet One?” Norwood asks her.
The woman’s voice is soft. She lifts a hand to brush tears and looks up at Rushing. “I’ve been waiting for you to come see me,” the woman says.
Norwood runs a finger down a list of names of people arrested the day before. Most are ruled out: armed robbery, second-offense DUI, battery, dating violence.
“Nope, nope, nope.”
Of the 21 names on the list, two look like possible candidates for pre-trial release. Norwood will send the names to the district attorney’s office for further evaluation. Maybe one or two out of 10 names sent to the district attorney will get the go-ahead for further consideration.
A few feet away, Rushing is hunched at a desk with one of the four inmates she summoned to the call-out room earlier in the afternoon.
The 29-year-old woman is striking, with caramel-colored eyes. She was arrested for possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. Rushing wants to understand her history, what kind of support system she has, what was happening in her life before her arrest, factors that will help her develop a plan for her to follow if she is released.
She has been working as a prostitute, staying in motel rooms and buying heroin. She tells Rushing she worked mostly as an administrative assistant and in fast food after dropping out of Istrouma High School in the 11th grade, walked away from jobs for drug use that escalated from marijuana to cocaine to heroin. Her mother used drugs all her life, and recently sobered up. Her siblings don’t talk to her. She has no friends.
“I’ve always been on my own,” she says.
Years ago, she tested positive for Hepatitis C at since-closed Earl K. Long Hospital. She has never seen a doctor about the test results.
She asks Rushing if she plans to call her mother and share what she has told her. She isn’t worried about what her mother will say about her to Rushing but about what she has told the social worker about her mother’s drug use. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
Rushing asks what she wants.
“A house, a car, a job. To be successful. I just want to stay sober. I would love to get my high school diploma.”
Rushing reassures the woman, who repeats a question she has asked three times over the course of the hour they spend together at the desk.=
“You think I’m a good candidate for the program?”
“I think you are an awesome candidate,” Rushing says. “You are exactly who we look for.”
Norwood calls to the woman across the room as she and Rushing move toward the door.
“You have so many good years of life ahead of you,” Rushing says. “This is going to help you with your education, your life.”
Gerald Tate turned 47 in March. “It was the first birthday I can remember as an adult that I was sober,” he says.
Tate was arrested on drug-possession charges last December. Rushing approached him about the program and a few days later he entered in-patient rehab.
Tate admits his first focus was on getting out of jail, not giving up drugs and alcohol that had become a fixture of daily life after graduating from Capitol High School. The stories of broken families and homelessness the carpenter and construction worker heard at required sobriety meetings made him re-think what was at stake.
“I didn’t want to go down that same path,” Tate says. “Other people’s stories motivated me to change.”
He got serious about sobriety. He joined a church, got baptized. He began to think differently. Meetings with a counselor made him more optimistic about life, even when its ups and downs are no longer tuned out.
“Feelings are intense once you detox,” says Tate, who is on schedule to complete the pre-trial program this summer.
He always spent time with his family, but “I wasn’t sober,” he says. He spends more time than ever with his children and grandchildren these days, enjoying sobriety.
He looks back at his arrest last year and sees a blessing in disguise. “I want people to know that this program changed my life,” Tate says.
When Rushing approached her about the pre-trial program, Wilson, the Navy vet, recalls her asking, What is it going to take to save you?
“I told her, Jesus,” Wilson says.
Rushing suggested a faith-based recovery program in Zachary. It was a good fit for Wilson. An assault during her time in the Navy and her husband’s later abuse had made her fearful of men and large groups. The Zachary program provided more separation between men and women than many in-patient facilities and fewer large-group gatherings, Wilson says.
Computer-dust is highly psychologically addictive but does not involve physical dependency, meaning she did not need medical detox. What she needed, Wilson says, was spiritual healing.
“She understood what I needed,” Wilson says of Rushing.
Rushing also helped Wilson write a letter to her daughter, who turns 10 this summer. The girl is musical, like her father, and Wilson sent her a blue guitar for Christmas. She longs to see her but understands the process needs to move at her daughter’s pace.
She continues to rebuild her life.
She remarried last year. She has undergone three surgeries since the 2017 car accident and will undergo a procedure later this year to repair delicate connective tissue in her eyelid.
She is learning to trust people and making connections with people worthy of trust. She was one of the pre-trial program’s first three graduates. The charges against her were dropped when she completed the program in summer 2018.
Completing the program made Wilson eligible for a state program to help her complete her bachelor’s degree. Class credits from three years at LSU are still good. She will take online courses through Northwestern University in the fall to complete her undergraduate degree in psychology in December.
Wilson will then complete more than 400 clinical hours to become a licensed clinical dependency counselor. She plans to focus on helping women in abusive situations.
Wilson thanks God and her mother above all others. Suicide is off the table, she says. She owes certain people who have helped her survive, she says.
She repeats a different morning prayer. Let me make every moment count. Let me do better for myself and for others. •