Atheist inmate settles for $1.95 million over 12-step drug rehab

Oct 21, 2014

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

By Bob Egelko

Barry Hazle was paroled after a one-year prison term for methamphetamine possession in 2007 and was ordered to spend the next 90 days in a residential drug treatment program. When he arrived, officials told him it was a 12-step program, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, that required participants to confess their powerlessness and submit to a “higher power” through prayer.

Hazle, a lifelong atheist, had asked for a secular treatment program. He said he was told this was the only state-approved facility in Shasta County, where he lived, but that it wasn’t a stickler for compliance.

“They told me, ‘Anything can be your higher power. Fake it till you make it,’” he recalled.

Hazle refused and was declared in violation of parole and sent back to prison for 100 days. Seven years and two federal court rulings later, he and his lawyers announced a $1.95 million settlement Tuesday of a suit against the state and its contractor, WestCare California, for wrongful incarceration in violation of his religious liberty.

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24 comments on “Atheist inmate settles for $1.95 million over 12-step drug rehab

  • This article does not exactly make me swell with pride. Hazle must represent the tiny fraction of prison inmates who are declared atheists though it does point to the reason that so many profess to be religious. It’s in their interests to do so.

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  • This case has less to do with the prisoner and more to do with the state offering only one option – profession in some sort of God. Like most theists, they have no clue what a decent alternative would be. This is a very expensive lesson.

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  • Does anyone know what the actual statistics are with 12 step faith based programs. Several people who work in mental health, people I otherwise respect and who don’t have a religious bias, say that 12 step programs are by far the most effective at keeping people off drugs and alcohol. But I’ve always been skeptical, especially given that 12 step programs are so often mandatory for prisoners and parolees and that they have a definite bias to report they are staying on the program even when they are not.

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  • Roedy Oct 22, 2014 at 3:18 am

    If you join the military or go to prison, usually your civil rights evaporate. This guy must have had a great lawyer.

    Hopefully this will get some non-religious alternatives organised.

    Swapping a religious addition for a drug addiction is a poor deal!

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  • Mandatory subservience to a mythical ‘father’. as a condition of your freedom. Yet more evidence of Sagan’s demon-haunted world. Perhaps this expensive lesson will stimulate the creation of a secular drug rehab program. (Although he claims to have gotten drug-free on his own.) I hope he uses the money to improve his quality of life rather than shoot/snort it through his brain.
    (Obviously, I have no idea how one ingests meth.)

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  • Good for him. I’m amazed they were able to win. I’m sure he had to endure a lot of embarrassment and frustration in addition to whatever comes from wrongful imprisonment because the state would have tried to give reasons other than his refusal to accept a higher power for revoking his sentence.

    In fact I imagine that’s automatic i.e. bureaucracy would force staff at a place like that to choose from charges that don’t exactly fit with what the inmate has done when reporting incidents. Here the best case might be something like, failure to comply with rules, and the worst case, disrupting the recovery of other inmates. I doubt there was a “this guy doesn’t believe in god, can you believe that?” box.

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  • I’m glad I’m just a drunk and not an alcoholic, because were I one, being asked to submit to a higher power would immediately send me scurrying back down to the pub.

    “Higher power”; what a guilt trip put down that is; load of bollocks!

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  • 10
    trebor55 says:

    Many county parole, probation agencies in the U.S require attendance to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Proof of attendance is accomplished by issuing cards that are dated and initialed by (supposedly) the person conducting a meeting. AA’s so called ‘Big Book’ explains that the only way to obtain lasting sobriety is through submission to a higher power. Many people in AA try to dodge the obvious that this “Higher Power” is in fact the Christian God. The whole notion seems off the rails in light of separation of church and state. At the conclusion of every meeting he Lord’s Prayer is recited. Further cementing the solidarity with Christian doctrine/dogma. Perhaps the award in this case will set a precedence.

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  • 11
    trebor55 says:

    No. One can pressure AA all they like and they will remain tight lipped. For sure they give out huge numbers of successes when convenient, but how can they possibly know. No statistical study can successfully be done. It would require following several people through their struggle for a very long time. AA is not going to submit to scrutiny, especially by studies conducted by Universities or private consulting researchers. AA is big business.

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  • trebor55 Oct 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm


    Many county parole, probation agencies in the U.S require attendance to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Proof of attendance is accomplished by issuing cards that are dated and initialed by (supposedly) the person conducting a meeting. AA’s so called ‘Big Book’ explains that the only way to obtain lasting sobriety is through submission to a higher power. Many people in AA try to dodge the obvious that this “Higher Power” is in fact the Christian God.

    This is just plain silly!
    Anyone who knows about religions, knows that the “higher power” requiring abstinence from alcohol is Allah!

    So tell AA to get out the prayer mats 6 times a day if they cannot separate church and state!

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  • There is a secular alternative to AA. It’s called S.O.S. recovery. Here is the link:

    AA has a problem with the young people in their ranks and they’ve known it for a decade. While the older alcoholics in the program have been grudgingly alright with the high level of religiosity in the program, the newer, younger members are not. Many of the younger members are drug addicts who have bottomed out young and found themselves in the program either because they don’t know that there are alternatives, or else they have been court ordered into the program as part of probation or parole requirements. The problem is that our young people are much less inclined to appreciate the religious browbeating than do the older members sitting beside them.

    Something else that is happening with the twelve step programs that I strongly object to is their insistence in an admission from their members that they are incapable of solving their addiction problems without the help of God. They mean to break the addict down and then build them back up as they see fit. Here’s the problem-the young women addicts that get sent into this program are already as broken down as any human can be. They are in the ditch literally and figuratively. Most have sunk so low that they prostitute themselves for the price of a fix. Then they go to a meeting to be further humiliated and in fact, preyed upon by the predatory men in the meeting. This is a disgusting tragedy.

    For a good read on the subject try the book: Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment-and How to Get Help That Works by Anne Fletcher. It’s a science based analysis of the options out there for addiction treatment. I was surprised to find that there are some big longitudinal studies out there with important findings in this field. No doubt AA doesn’t want this info to be spread far and wide since they come off looking like inept fools when compared with various other programs and approaches. In fact, here in the States there are good hopeful results for opiate addiction with a drug called Vivitrol. This is discussed in the book at length and guess what AA thinks about the drug? They discourage anyone from trying it because it doesn’t jive with their “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Better to tough it out and pray like there’s no tomorrow than to take the easy way out with that opiate blocker drug-so they say.

    AA and the 12 step model are so ingrained in the American recovery system that it blocks the view of alternative programs that are more effective and positive for self esteem. This court victory in the article is a major victory for the secular community and for addiction patients in general.

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  • A friend of mine who is at least 15 years sober and very active in the AA program says that she was told there is a figure of 12% recovery rate for their program. When she told me that I was astonished at how low it is. It’s not even 50% which would translate into an equal chance of recovery whether you joined up or gave it a go just all on your own! In fact, we could make the case that attending AA may be causing you to fall off the wagon! (Several young drug addicts have told me that they live in fear of these court ordered meetings because they are sure to bump into their old drugging buddies in the meeting and parking lot after it, and they don’t have the strength to say no at that point.)

    In my comment below I recommend a book that discusses the abysmal track record of AA. I would like to look up their own self reported success rate in that book but I’ve given the book to the mom of a young drug addict who needed it more than I did at the time. I do remember that their own claim was a success rate lower than the 12% that my friend quoted to me a while ago. Between these two comments I went to Amazon and ordered yet another one of those books. This is my third.

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  • Thank you. I can’t overlook this hideous problem. Our young people here in the States are dropping like flies from opiate addiction and while there are science based approaches out there that are promising, our government still forces these people into a thinly veiled church service. Not to mention the lack of health insurance that kills plenty of heroin addicts in the streets and in their own comfy, cushy middle class beds too. This is a human rights violation.

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  • Yeh well….. My eldest brother, second eldest of six and over sixty now, has been a long time addict. A real black sheep. Came back into the family a few years ago spouting off about Jesus and how the AA and church had saved him. Didn’t matter to them he was supposed to be a Muslim. Neither God did him good and he relapsed pretty quickly. Don’t see him any more.

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  • 19
    Robert Firth says:

    Seems an easy requirement to get around:

    Dear counsellor, do you have power over me?
    Indeed I do.
    Right. Please stand on that chair. I now believe in a “higher power”

    I confess to feeling as uncomfortable about non-religious nuisances as about the other kind.

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  • I was wondering if anyone would weigh in on something that stuck in my mind after a conversation with a friend about the homeless population here in Boston. My friend attends the UU church here in my town and they have a program where members spend time getting to know homeless people and they buy them food and give them gifts of items like clothing and sundry items. She then said that they don’t recommend giving the homeless people any cash because they may spend it on booze.

    That last statement caused my mind to wander off on a consideration of this point. Are they right to deny the homeless a quick way to buy a bottle of their favorite alcoholic beverage? Or is this just a way to make themselves feel warm and fuzzy about their own publicly demonstrated altruism? As much as I find the whole homelessness problem to be disturbing and disgraceful that this exists in this place in this day and age, I do want them to receive all the help they can get. But is it so bad to give that person cash, even if they do use it to buy a bottle to get them through the day and night? What if a homeless person used part of that money to buy a heroin fix that will let them stay just above the physical reality of a detox reaction that is only hours away if they don’t get that substance in the near future? Wouldn’t it be more ethical to just give them the money for their physical addiction, offer to get them into a detox/rehab and spare them the agony of getting that money in any of the other ways that they will have no choice to resort to? If I give a homeless female heroin addict one hundred dollars, she will spend forty on a fix and then something to eat and she won’t need to provide sexual favors to a strange guy in a back alley to obtain the money she needs.

    Is my gift of one hundred dollars an ethical act of beneficence or is it destructive super enabling?

    (if we still had the discussion section I would have posted this there as a discussion question)

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  • @ LaurieB

    I can only tell you from my own expedience as to my brother, posted above. I was young when my brother left home and we used to see him on occasions and I didn’t realise the tension the adults faced. I only realised when old enough why the fights with my dad happened and why my mum cried so much. When I started work the request for money started to come my way as well. He also gambled so on the occasion he won he would come home and give generously to all he owed but would soon take back more on his return. Our more recent history is that he had two sons who were both born addicts because his wife was a user as well. The cost of keeping them all became too much for my family and we saw less and less of them. One son died of an overdose and the other has survived many suicide attempts. That was the period when my brother found the AA and church. He would always come up with schemes to try and convince us of giving him larger and larger amounts of money until one day he tried to con my sister and myself with the same scheme in one day. I realised what was happening and quickly phobed my sister and, in no uncertain words, told her it had to stop. She told him no and spent the night crying her eyes out through guilt. That is why we no longer see him or his remaining son. It has been about five years now.

    The moral of my story is that you can give but… so expecting no return. If you are looking for any kind of “value for money” then you will be eaten alive with regret. I secretly went and gave my brother £600 after telling my sister not to do so. It was a final farewell and he understood. He would not even take it from me physically. He pointed to the sideboard and started talking about something else.

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  • Olgun,
    I’m very sorry for all of your troubles. Sometimes the only consolation is in knowing that so many families are wracked with pain over addiction and mental health issues of those who are closest to them. I don’t think there is enough attention to the long term suffering of the siblings of these people. People realize that the moms are destroyed and that there is a bad ripple effect out through the rest of the family but the siblings just can’t escape from exactly the situation that you describe above.

    In my comment, I had in mind a narrower view of the problem, that is, helping homeless people with a cash donation that they will use to buy things they need to stay alive like food but will also use some money to buy alcohol/drugs. What you describe above having to do with addicts shaking down their family members for drug money is very common indeed. If that situation is presented to anyone in addiction treatment they will undoubtedly classify it as straight up enabling. No judgement here mind you. It’s easy to hurl accusations of enabling if someone is not involved with these addicts but things are very gray area when we are in the thick of it, isn’t that right?

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  • Hi LaurieB,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Our enabling guilt never left us but neither did our responsibility. Once he married and had children it was for them that we helped. We gave food, cloths and toys for the children. We gave vacuum cleaners, ironing boards, furniture for their home. Anything to lesson the amount of ready cash but they all went the same way. Sold at a fraction of the cost. Replaced and sold again. We tried to rely on a mothers instincts but that also became a tool to use against us. We were very aware of what was happening and tried every avenue but you can never win in situations like that. I can’t really see much difference to this and the homeless person on the street as far as enabling goes. I have become hardened and will not give money to a drunk homeless person. I bought a sandwich for one once when he asked for money because he hadn’t eaten for three days. He looked at me like I had just given him something really nasty and walked off. Another politely accepted a McDonalds meal. It doesn’t effect me much either way. As I said before, I never expect anything back so am not disappointed.

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  • . Hi Laurie.
    Is my gift of one hundred dollars an ethical act of beneficence or is it destructive super enabling?

    We know the gift of money is going to be spent on whatever the drug of choice. At least if you accompany the subject to a food outlet and pay for the meal it is accomplishing the end you had in mind. Let someone else supply the drug money.

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