Drug court group

Drug court graduates, front row from left, Bridget Melton, Angela Mallette and Erica Smith; back row, Robert "Dent" Williams, Billy Jenkins, John Middleton, Donna Heath, Clarence Darby and Chip Case, Graduates Elizabeth "Angel" Gracia and Thomas "T.J." Merrill, who were visiting with friends and family, are not pictured. (Photo by Jack Hammett)

 

Graduates enter life after drug court

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The yellowed courtroom walls have begun to crack, as if long subjected to the stress that unfolds therein. Judge Dal Williamson stood at the lectern before an audience and read excerpts of reflections from graduates of the Jones County Drug Court. He kept the names private.

“Before drug court, I didn’t have any dreams,” Williamson read, “because I thought I would live in the nightmare of addiction for the rest of my life.”

On Tuesday, friends, family and 10 graduates of drug court gathered for this rite. Each grad had teetered some time ago between the drug court’s supportive net and a prison sentence. Each one had arrived at this particular Tuesday — not an unordinary Tuesday for most — at least three years sober. Graduate T.J. Merrill, during a speech that drew uproarious laughter, compared the point to Job of the Old Testament.

“God was bragging on Job to the devil, and the devil said, ‘That Job is just like that because you’ve got that protective hedge around him. If you remove that protective hedge, I will make him curse you to your face.’ Today, my protective hedge is being removed.”

Laughter became tears and applause.

The process had involved a kind of schooling; thus the word “graduate” is accurate. Coordinator Consuelo Walley, the much-loved coordinator and noted tough love teacher of the evening, had put each graduate through anger management. There had also been parenting classes, substance abuse meetings and regular drug tests.

John “Peewee” Middleton discussed this, smoking a cigarette in the cool air outside the courthouse. Dusk had begun to fall. Middleton was honest and direct. In three years, he’d undone 27 years of addiction. He’d even graduated high school.

“You know, I quit school in the seventh grade,” he said. “I started using meth when I was 13 years old.”

So began those 27 years. For Middleton and other graduates, the start of drug court was a thick, clearly-marked line that separated their old selves and the new. It’s their second life, in a way. Middleton nearly served eight years in prison.

“I woke up one day, and I said, ‘I’m done, God,’” he said. “I was thrown in jail that same day. I was in jail for three months. I thought I was going to serve those eight years. But I landed in drug court.”

Middleton feels that the program is set up so that its participants will easily fail. Each day, he had to call in to see if it was a test day. If he hadn’t, he would have been kicked out. In other words, the participant had to be “willing at heart.”

“But it’s a successful program,” he said. “I’m three years clean. They teach us how to cope with life with personal skills instead of using drugs to cope.”

Middleton attends Christ’s Church of Laurel. He’s now remarried, has a new home, has a new baby and owns Middleton’s Tree Service, a business he began some years back. His father had taken it over while Middleton got clean.

“Someone asked me what my plan was after graduation,” he said. “I said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Life will be the same except for the phone calls.”

The guest speaker that night was Angela Mallette, a drug court graduate herself. Otherwise, she’s known as the executive director of the Mississippi Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Project. Shortly after she landed in drug court in 2016, she sought work in her career path as a civil engineer.

She wondered to herself on her way to a job interview what her employers would ask when she had to appear before a judge, go to meetings and make her phone calls.

“I was still carrying around a lot of shame,” Mallette said. “We are in the midst of a compulsive disease. The problem is that the public doesn’t understand. We don’t wake up and say, ‘Today is a great day to ruin my life.’ The most important thing to overcome addiction is to figure out why you started using in the first place.”

Mallette graduated in January of this year.

Summaries of the graduates’ speeches follow:

Chip Case: Case thanks Ignite Church, Judge Dal Williamson, Coordinator Consuelo Walley, Case Manager Kenyada Smith and his family.

Clarence Darby: Darby is now pursuing his passion as a referee for multiple youth sports programs. He thanks Williamson and the drug court team. “Alcohol and drugs never lose,” he said. “When we learn to choose and serve God, we’re going to be in a better place.”

Erica Smith: Smith thanks Williamson and the drug court team. “I first met him in the courtroom, where I was scared where I’d be in the next 30 minutes.” After landing in drug court, which overwhelmed her at first, life became more manageable in the weeks that followed, she said.

Elizabeth “Angel” Gracia: Gracia now has visitation privileges with her children. She said Case Manager Kenyada Smith was her backbone throughout drug court.

Donna Heath: Heath is a graduate of Dying to Live, a recovery program in Laurel. She thanked the late Officer Jimmy Reynolds. “My husband has stood by me and the kids through this whole thing,” she said. “You young people have a long road ahead.”

Billy Jenkins: Jenkins has been clean for five years. He wants to own a business someday and thanks God and the late Reynolds for his graduation.

Bridget Melton: Bridget Melton now works at the courthouse, where she received her drug court sentence and subsequently graduated. She thanks God. “If you decide to change,” she said, “you have to change all the areas, not the areas that are convenient.”

Thomas “T.J.” Merrill: Merrill thanks Kenyada, Williamson, Walley and the rest of the drug court team, including the late Reynolds. He also thanks his family. He recently bought a car.

John “Peewee” Middleton: Middleton thanks God, Williamson, Kenyada and the rest of the drug court team. “There was one word that stuck in my head: I was called a lost cause many times,” he said. “I was a lost cause to them, but I wasn’t a lost cause to myself.”

Robert “Dent” Williams: Williams is considered a father figure among the drug court graduates. He thanks Jesus Christ, Williamson, Reynolds and the rest of the drug court team. “Officer Reynolds, we did it, buddy,” he said.

Before her speech ended, Mallette said she’d been trying to soothe a pain she’d felt her whole life. However, before her first Oxycodone pill, she’d never realized the pain was there.

“What fear did the drugs quiet in you?” she said. “If you figure that out, you’re a huge step ahead.”

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