Behind bars and battling addiction

The struggle to live free and clean
Posted at 7:00 PM, Jun 07, 2017

The In's and Out's of Prison

You could say Derek Barnes knows the in's and out's of prison. Nearly two decades behind bars will do that to someone. 

He's 37 years old and knows life inside the walls a lot better than life outside the walls, just getting little tastes of it in between different sentences. The reason why he's served so much time: stealing cars and violating his parole -- crimes stemming from his drug addiction.


"When I was young, I used to commit crime at the same time I would get high," Barnes said. "That's what brought me to prison and started that domino effect."

Barnes first experimented with drugs when he was 15 years old. 

"I started with Marijuana at a young age. Marijuana led to acid, acid led to crack cocaine, and then shrooms, sherm," Barnes said. "And then once I tried Meth at about 18, I dropped all of those drugs like a bad habit and was just addicted to meth because those drugs didn't even compare to that drug. It's a very dangerous drug."

Despite knowing how dangerous a drug meth is, sentence after sentence and rehab after rehab, he'd end up back at square one. When he first tried it, he never realized how quickly it would change his life -- and how hard it would be to quit.

"A lot of people have drug addiction. They've got a misconception about drug addiction, like it's a light bulb that you can turn on and off and just say no to drugs, and you can just quit," he said. "If it was that easy, drug addiction wouldn't be an epidemic in this world, because it's that bad."

In Search of a Safe Space

Spending nearly his entire adult life in prison, Barnes explained there's a feeling of comfort and safety there that he doesn't have in the real world. 

Every time he's finished a sentence, Barnes' life went from extreme structure to no structure in the blink of an eye. Every time, he said he'd get very overwhelmed, very quickly.

It's weird to say that when I come to prison I feel comfortable. There's a certain amount of safety," Barnes said. "When I get out there, it's going from 20 decisions a day in prison, and when you get released you go to 200 a day, that's the big difference. And so when I do that, what triggers my relapses is -- I'm overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, and expectations.

That's why he relapsed back in April and ended up back in prison for a fifth time. However, the stress and anxiety this time came from progress in beating his addiction. Barnes was given a second chance by the state to be a participant in an intensive treatment program at the Maricopa Reentry Center in Arizona. It's a 90 day program designed to help ex-inmates who are struggling with addiction from ending up back in prison. The idea is to try and reduce the rate of recidivism throughout the state while also giving people the help and supervision they need.

The Root of All Evil?

"Probably the majority of our inmates that are in prison? It has something to do with drugs," Deputy Warden Roxanne Hill said. "They may not have gotten caught with drugs, but, stealing something to buy drugs. I think it has something to do with drugs."

Hill explained she thinks programs like these will help ease the transition back into the real world, making it less likely for former prisoners to relapse and use drugs again, leading to them re-offending.

"The reentry centers give a little bit more freedom, but not so much freedom like when you're out and free and there's no sort of supervision," she said. "It lets them get their feet back into society, a little bit at a time."

Barnes made it through 75 days of the program when he relapsed and used meth again. But for the first time in his life, he turned himself in.

"For the first time in my life when I relapsed, I didn't go out on the run, I didn't commit no crime, I didn't pick up 10 years, I didn't hurt nobody, I didn't do nothing," he said. "I got high twice and I turned myself in, and my mom saw that and I held myself accountable. And she was like, Derek, that's not my son."

He said the program was better than any rehab he's ever done in his life -- it was helping him see life in a new light. 

"I'm getting closer and closer, I feel it. I just felt so good in that program that I really did think I was going to graduate," he said.

Once he relapsed, Barnes said he realized that there is no graduation, there's no finish line on sobriety. It's a lifestyle change that he'll have to actively work on every day.

No Finish Line in Sight

"Towards then end, I kept looking at the program as 90 days, 90 days. When I'm done with those 90 days I could start living life and it'll be a success," Barnes said. "Well, when I kept telling myself 90 days, 90 days, well I didn't know that I was putting a finish line on my sobriety. Basically, 90 days and then I'm done, I don't have to do that no more. That's one of the worst things you can do, because it'll be for the rest of my life, day by day."

Going back to prison was a bittersweet moment. Sad to spend more time locked up, sad to call his parents and tell them what happened, but proud about his progress.

"I've came a long way from the person that I used to be -- a long way, and I can tell I'm almost there, I really can," he said. "So to me, I didn't take this as failure, I really didn't."

Drug addiction is a disease that millions throughout the United States are battling. Some of whom are behind bars, like Barnes, and many others will end up behind bars for committing crimes to feed the addiction. While every person is different, Barnes said there are some things that help make the road to sobriety a little smoother.One of the most important ones: family.

A Feeling of Hope

"Family support, especially if they believe in you and they see something in you," Barnes said. "It pushes you to see something in yourself. Having them not give up on you and having your back the whole time, because they know your heart. If you're really sincere about trying, your mom and dad will know more than anybody."

Barnes believes the support from loved ones helps bring a feeling of hope, which helps him genuinely believe there is a better way to live life. Without it, as it is a mental battle, he said things can take a turn for an even darker path.

"They're thinking they can't quit, they've tried and tried and tried, and can't quit," Barnes said about people struggling with addiction. "Well soon they get to a point where they have no more hope, nobody will believe in them, they don't even believe in themselves. That's why people are committing suicide."

His family is still in the picture. He knows he's put them through the wringer, and explained how lucky he is that they've decided to stick around. Their love, helping drive his fight.

"They're not always going to be there in my life," Barnes said. "One day it might be too late for my mom and dad to see that I've changed, and I don't want that. I want to do this for myself, for my mom, for my dad, because they've been there my whole life for me."

Life Passes By

At 37 years old, Barnes explained he's missed out on too much of life.

"It (meth) took everything I love, and ever loved in my life, it took it from me. It destroyed everything in sight. Every time I touched that drug, Meth, I went down like the Titanic," he said.

Now, he's ready to have those experiences and make good, new memories with his family.

"Enough is enough. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. I'm ready to throw my hands up, and that's the point of life I'm at right now, because I can't do it no more," he said.

He knows it will be a hard fight, a day-to-day nonstop battle. He may climb up two steps, fall down one, stumble and fall and get knocked off the ladder again. But he says he won't kneel and give in to his addiction, because if he does, his story will be one about "what could have been."


Despite his view of this new picture from inside the barbed wire of the Tonto Unit at the Safford Prison Complex, his view comes with a open eyes and a smile.

"I wake up every morning happy I really do, because for the first time in my life I see my path," Barnes said. "I want to be a success story, not a failure story. I still am going after that success story."

"I won't lay down and kneel to this addiction. If I do, there's only one way it'll end: life in prison, or death. It's institutions or death with that addiction, and I know that, so I will continue to fight it," Barnes said

"And when I relapse, I pick myself up and start swinging. There's a time when you've gotta fight back and quit taking it, and that's the point I'm at. But it took 37 years to get there, you've gotta fall a bunch of times like I did to get to that point. And it takes hitting rock bottom a few times."

Five years from now, his eyes are on a prettier picture. With his planned lifestyle change, he hopes to take what he's learned and pay it forward to help out those who need it.

"Whether I be a motivational speaker or a life coach or a drug and alcohol counselor -- or all of the above. It will be some kind of field like that, and I will be doing it the rest of my life."

Barnes knows his is a story that he'll have to write one step at a time, one day at a time. But he has a vision for the ending.

And it doesn't have him in prison or addicted to meth.

That story will begin soon for Barnes. On June 7th, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency voted to reinstate him on community supervision (parole). At this point, they do not know if he will be returning to the Maricopa Reentry Center's treatment program. But during the interview, he said he would love to return if given the chance.