Drinking got Andrew Aker into jail, and he kept drinking until he got to the doorway.
Gripping a half-empty can of beer, he stumbled toward the entrance of Baltimore County's new jail for drunken drivers, steadied himself on a bush and belted back the rest. With a show of reluctance, he tossed the can away -- along with his freedom for the next 28 days.
"I had 12 beers today, six before court and six before coming here," Mr. Aker said as he prepared to check into the facility, which is designed to punish offenders with alcohol or drug problems, get them off the roads and offer them treatment. "Funny, I had to drink to get the nerve to come."
The Baltimore County DWI facility, which opened Sept. 20, is the second of its kind in the state and the only one in the Baltimore area. High hopes for its success have diminished somewhat as administrators have found that filling the 100-bed facility is harder than they expected.
So far, fewer than 65 people have gone through the program. Mr. Aker was the 40th.
After a District Court conviction for roughing up a friend in a fight over a half-empty bottle of vodka, Mr. Aker, an unemployed Dundalk factory worker, chose to go to the DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) facility instead of spending 60 days in the county Detention Center.
Some of the inmates are drunken drivers. Others, such as Mr. Aker, got into other kinds of alcohol-related trouble. Still others abuse drugs and drink. They're all are required to pay for their treatment, based on their income.
There are no bars to keep inmates inside the renovated, two-story building in a corner of the state's Rosewood Center in Owings Mills. But there is an understanding that if the rules aren't followed, it's back to the judge -- and most likely to jail.
Inmates may work
Inmates are in bed by 11 p.m. and up by 6 a.m. Two hours of lectures, counseling and group sessions are scheduled every night. Cleaning and other chores are done throughout the day. Inmates who have jobs may work -- but they have only enough free time outside to get to their jobs and back. When they return, they're searched and take a breath analysis test for alcohol.
On the night Mr. Aker arrived, his blood alcohol level registered .117 percent -- enough to make him legally drunk.
"I have to keep telling myself that this is better than jail," Mr. Aker, 38, said as he joined that night's group therapy session.
Already waiting were 14 other alcohol and drug abusers -- all vowing that the last time was the last time.
The youngest was 24 and the oldest 53. They were mostly white, with blue collar backgrounds. They had lost marriages, custody of their children, jobs, money and most important, dignity.
Some were willing to speak on the record, while others agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity.
Mark Richey, 33, was in because he would pick up one beer and keep drinking until he passed out.
Another inmate, a 32-year-old carpenter, had three drunken driving convictions but said his real problem was crack cocaine.
A salesman in his 30s from Columbia was afraid of going to prison. He had checked himself in two weeks earlier, hoping to impress the judge who would sentence him for slamming into the rear of another car while drunk -- his fourth DWI conviction.
Auto-glass installer Derek Maynard, 24, has been through the 28-day program before. Within a week of being released, he inhaled three lines of cocaine.
All the participants watched a videotaped lecture on the excuses alcoholics use to convince themselves that they're not alcoholics. The tape was discussed during the night's session, as the inmates tried to help one another past emotional and psychological stumbling blacks.
Wearing rundown tennis shoes and a red sweat shirt, Mr. Maynard arrived late, stirring a hot drink. He had been outside on one of the four daily smoking breaks. Almost everyone smokes.
L The group jumped on him for being late, for breaking a rule.
"I was told I had three minutes," he shot back defensively. The rest of the group stared at him.
Breaking the rules is why Mr. Maynard is back in the program. He never attended the required drug counseling meetings after his first release. Instead, he went to the house of a friend who had cocaine out on the table.
"I couldn't resist," he said.
Now his life is back where he wants it, he said. His Essex employer has agreed to give him his job back when he gets out.
"I'm sorry," he told the group, apologizing for his tardiness.
Mr. Richey, who sat next to Mr. Aker, was the most talkative inmate that night, his last at the facility. He said he wanted the others -- particularly the newcomers -- to see that they could make it.
For 16 years, Mr. Richey drank. Five years ago his drinking became a serious problem. He racked up three drunken driving convictions and he said he had spent close to $10,000 on fines and lawyers.
He recalled the Friday that his wife asked him to pick up a carton of milk on the way home from work. The tow truck driver, who earns a living repossessing cars, finally got home four days later -- confused and battling a wild hangover.
He wasn't sure, but he thought that he had gone on yet another drunken binge and had a three-day blackout. His American Express Card statement, which arrived later that month, confirmed his suspicion. It contained $1,700 in charges from a string of bars as far as 60 miles from his Baltimore home.
"I still don't know what happened Saturday, Sunday and Monday," Mr. Richey said. "I was out of control.
"This place teaches you everything you need to know," he said. "Nobody in the bar said, 'Hey, man, why are you having blackouts?' "
After-care program required
Even though he had completed 28 days in jail, Mr. Richey must attend five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, take a urine test each week and join a drunken driving monitor program. The process is part of the after-care program required of all inmates on release.
Mr. Richey told the group that he was thankful that he never had used drugs. That would make his recovery easier, he said. The carpenter told the group that he used one drug to replace another.
Last July 4, after racking up three DWI convictions, he had his last taste of alcohol, a beer, he said. On July 5, he took a hit of crack and was out of control again.
"I've always been bullheaded," he said. "The last time I had crack, I smoked a $40 piece. It was so good. Then I got a $100
piece. Soon it was 2 a.m. and I couldn't even come home. I was sitting there looking at a piece of crack at a friend's house."
By the end of the session, Mr. Aker still doubted whether he could make it through the program.
"For 11 months I stopped drinking but picked it back up," Mr. Aker said. "Right now I feel depressed because I want to go back to drinking. But I'm at the point that if I go back out there now, I'll die."
Mr. Richey interrupted Mr. Aker, wished him luck, and left the building.
"He looks happy, but I had that look too -- for 11 months," Mr. Aker said.