Access to drugs in jail was a death sentence

There's no question that Michael Rabuck should have been institutionalized. People and their property in the city and Baltimore County were safer with him off the street. But this drug-addicted man ended up in a maximum-security prison, the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where other inmates were eager to give him heroin - and willing to kill him if he did not get his family to pay for it.

So his family paid for it.

Money his parents could have spent for something worthwhile - say, their son's drug rehabilitation - went instead to associates of Jessup prisoners who kept Rabuck, 29, supplied with the heroin that ultimately killed him.

Michael Rabuck was no innocent. But he belonged in a different kind of institution, something like a hospital behind bars - not a prison housing drug dealers and murderers. The sentencing of Rabuck to "The Cut," as the Jessup prison is known, for 25 years "might as well have been a death sentence," says his father, Larry Rabuck of Dundalk.

His son should have been in long-term drug treatment a long time ago, before he committed the serious crimes that pushed him beyond eligibility for the second and third chances so many addicts require - and often get - as they struggle for sobriety.

One time, Michael Rabuck's family managed to scrape together money for residential drug treatment. But his addiction was so profound that Rabuck walked away from the opportunity, and he ended up back in prison.

Rabuck started using heroin as a teenager, when he dropped out of school. His criminal record included theft, possession of illegal drugs and burglary. He made a lot of bad choices - "Don't ask me why I'm so hard-headed," he wrote his father once - and he never escaped the depressing grind of streets, courts and prisons. He had jobs, but they didn't last.

We'll never know for sure, but had Rabuck received intensive, long-term, in-patient treatment years back, it's possible he would have stopped committing crimes. He might have become employed, maybe even a good citizen, instead of a heroin-hungry inmate pleading with his parents to pay people on the outside for the heroin he was getting on the inside. Having the words "Down with the pain" tattooed on his back might not have occurred to him.

And, had he received the kind of help he obviously needed, Michael Rabuck might be alive today.

He died Nov. 19 at Baltimore Washington Medical Center from an apparent drug overdose in The Cut. His death is under investigation, according to Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the prison system.

Rabuck's death came three days after the Maryland corrections commissioner told The Sun that officials were revamping security procedures in an effort to disrupt the flow of drugs into prisons. In July, The Sun reported that heroin, among other contraband, is routinely smuggled past security checkpoints, and officials acknowledged that much of the violence in prisons stems from disputes over unpaid drug debts.

Michael Rabuck was right in the middle of all that, from the day he entered the House of Correction in 2003, sentenced by a Baltimore County judge to 25 years for his third felony - the robbery of $17 from a convenience store.

According to Rabuck's mother, Amy Stealey, her son had used force and, in one case, a weapon, to commit robberies on two other occasions, in the 1990s. One time, she said, Rabuck held a hypodermic needle to his victim's neck. Another time he put a chokehold on a fellow drug addict. In both instances, Rabuck got cash for heroin. When, in 2002, he jumped the counter of the convenience store to rifle its register, Rabuck was again trying to get cash to feed his habit. He ended up with $17, his mother and attorney said. However small the amount, once Rabuck was found guilty of that third offense, Maryland's sentencing guidelines called for at least 25 years.

So he went to the House of Correction.

There was no opportunity for drug treatment.

In fact, in all of Rabuck's experiences with the criminal justice system, only one time did a judge order him into drug treatment, Stealey says, and that was in 2001. Family members donated $1,000 to pay for residential treatment at a facility in Baltimore County.

"But Michael walked away from it after 11 days," Stealey says. "He went to the streets."

So it goes with so many drug-addicted offenders - a frantic, frustrating, depressing, up-hill, down-hill odyssey. This is one of the most daunting challenges in society: breaking the addictions that fuel the cycle of crime-incarceration-unemployment-crime that keeps the prisons full and the recidivism rate at more than 50 percent.

"I was angry for Michael putting us through so much," says Larry Rabuck. "I didn't understand why he couldn't change. I used to say to him, 'Why don't you just stop? What is wrong with you?' But his sickness was too big. It was bigger than anything I ever experienced in my life."

Because Michael Rabuck remained addicted to heroin, and because it was available to him inside The Cut, he used the drug and ran up bills.

Both Larry Rabuck and Amy Stealey say they were so concerned that their son would be killed in prison that, on his instructions by telephone and letter, they made payments, both in cash and by money order, to strangers in Baltimore and elsewhere to settle Michael Rabuck's debts.

Receipts for money orders that Larry Rabuck mailed on his son's behalf show that the recipients lived in East Baltimore, Montgomery County, and the Bronx, N.Y. One, for $75, was mailed to an inmate in the House of Correction. Larry Rabuck's total outlay was about $1,000. His modest house in Dundalk has no dining room set, no living room furniture because Rabuck sold them to get money for his son's heroin suppliers.

Amy Stealey says she made between 40 and 50 payments, totaling between $1,500 and $2,000 over three years, to associates or relatives of the inmates who were slipping heroin to her son in Jessup. She mailed some payments and personally delivered others.

At one point, Stealey reported the persistent problem to a corrections official at Jessup, saying she feared for her son's life. The official, she said, advised her to "pay your bill," adding that, "If [Michael] can't afford it, he shouldn't be using it."

So his parents kept paying Rabuck's bills.

"I didn't want him to get killed," said his father.

"But, look where they put him. They put him in Jessup, where you either die by not paying for your drugs or you die by taking them."