e-mail us


A prison ministry

Special Report Writer

Addiction to drugs and alcohol offered “no plan and no escape route,” a former user told Fr. Peter Young. Another confessed he had been “running a finish line” from jail to death. A third admitted that his habit had robbed him of everything -- relationships, home and job.

The three are among the many faces that appear in the recently released film, Glidepath to Recovery, produced by Family Theater Productions in Hollywood, Calif. The film documents the work of Young, 67, a priest of the Albany, N.Y., diocese who has spent 40 of his 41 years as a priest ministering to prisoners and addicts. Until 10 years ago he was chaplain at Mount McGregor Prison in Wilton, N.Y., as well as chaplain to the New York State Senate in Albany.

It didn’t take the priest long to see the link between chemical addiction and incarceration. In fact, about 80 percent of America’s prisoners are “inside” due to drugs and/or alcohol, he said.

The problems don’t stop when they get out. When it’s time for their parole, most inmates “are all dressed up with no place to go,” Young said.

Just like a fighter aircraft trying to land at sea, prisoners need “a glidepath” to make a safe transition into their new realm, said Young, a former Navy man. Without recovery programs, housing and jobs, the prospects for returning to prison are overwhelming, he told NCR.

So for four decades the priest has been at the helm of an ambitious three-step program: Peter Young’s Housing, Industries & Treatment, Inc. Inmates begin with drug and alcohol treatment while still in jail, and obtain housing and employment when they leave. Some 3,000 to 4,ooo people a year participate in the program.

The priest claims that 92 percent of those who go through recovery programs and vocational training find work within three to four months. He also claims the program has reduced the rate of recidivism to 20 percent from the national norm of 80 percent. “Rehabilitate; don’t incarcerate,” is Young’s motto.

Recovering addicts train to work in the hotel and food industry and learn computer skills. Former inmates have even graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. One is head chef at the Schuyler Inn in Albany, an 80-bed motel run by recovering addicts. Many members of the state assembly stay at Schuyler during the legislative session. Young’s protégés also staff Le Moyne Manor in Syracuse, N.Y.

In Albany, former addicts run three chicken restaurant franchises, seven cafeterias, a couple of floral boutiques and a coffee shop as well as a mini-mart in a housing complex for older adults where they also provide security. Young’s enterprise has spread to Brooklyn, Queens, Syracuse and Utica and employs 300 to 400 workers statewide. Three-quarters are former inmates, 97 percent are in recovery programs.

But you don’t have to go jail to benefit from Young’s scheme, said Mercy Sr. Phyllis Herbert, who coordinates the program’s Honor Court. Herbert and her staff work closely with the district attorney and other lawyers to divert offenders from prison before they get into the court system.

“We provide places they can go,” the nun said. “We vouch for them and monitor them closely” once they are released into the Honor Court. Most of Herbert’s staff are ex-offenders who’ve been in the system and are devoting their lives now to trying to affect the lives of others. Courts demand strong accountability from the program, which consists of treatment and training while offenders live in supervised housing. Some judges mandate monthly written reports on those in the Honor Court.

“The safety of the public is serious business; this program makes us very responsible,” said Herbert, a registered nurse, who met Young 20 years ago when she was medical director of his “sobering-up center.”

Herbert said the program has thrived largely due to Young’s dynamism and his research efforts. He has visited rehabilitation programs around the country, surfed the Internet and discovered that the hospitality industry offered the most growth potential, she said. He’s also raised money and paid rent for several units in Albany Housing and moved recovering addicts into these apartments.

The nun still recalls the day several years ago when a judge told her that a woman was not worth working with. “She’s just a drug dealer, Sister,” the judge said. But the woman, a former heroine addict, is now a counselor to other addicts and has participated in all the recovery and training programs offered by Young’s organization.

“Father and I often say that once addicts become sober and abstinent, they want to give back. You can’t find much more beautiful, caring and talented people,” she said.

Over 40 years Young’s fledging recovery campaign has grown into a $15 million operation with half of its budget coming from Medicaid, a fifth from social services and much of the rest from entitlement programs and fundraising.

Young, one of the most recognized faces in the State Assembly building, continues to lobby New York legislators, who have consistently allocated funds for building more prisons while severely cutting rehabilitation, treatment and chaplaincy programs.

“We have to convince them that these kinds of programs work and save money,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000