Seated in a 13-man group for graduation, Andre Porter heard his name as it rang through the chapel.
He jumped up in his all-white outfit with “STATE PRISONER” stamped across the back, made his way to shake Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller’s hand and took his certificate.
And in that moment, Porter felt wanted.
“I feel like people cared once again. It’s something that I haven’t seen in a while. People were there to support me and to congratulate me for something that I accomplished,” he said.
Porter joined the first class of graduates Wednesday in the Residential Substance Abuse Program at the Hall County Correctional Institute. Following a $50,000 grant award last year, the program is the first county-level offering of the treatment in the state.
“He won’t admit this, but he is largely responsible for us being able to get the grant that made this program possible,” Warden Walt Davis said of Fuller at graduation.
For four nights per week, participants in the program work through addiction in intensive treatment as a part of the Re-entry Accountability Court Transition for prison inmates close to release.
“I’ve been here 30 years in our criminal justice and civil justice system, and there’s no program that’s more important,” Fuller said.
For Porter, the therapy of talking through his years of drug use pushed him through.
“The more I talk about it, the more I don’t want it,” he said.
Crack cocaine was Porter’s addiction. He recalled being talked into using it by a friend in the early 1990s.
With a house, a car and money in the bank, Porter said it only took three months before the drug started taking a serious toll on his life.
“I started losing things,” he said. “I started losing furniture. I started losing money out of the bank. It’s going to hurt you in the long run.”
Porter said he couldn’t bring himself to hurt somebody in pursuit of the drug, but he had to get the money.
“It was the only way,” he said. “It was the easy way to me. Instead of putting a gun to somebody’s head or taking money from somebody physically, it was easier for me to steal.”
Porter’s classmate, Darren Sellers, traced his drug use back to age 15 in 1985. Playing basketball with a friend, Sellers met the friend’s older sister who was in the “drug scene.”
“He said, ‘Do you want to do some drugs?’ With her, sure. By the time she left, we’d been introduced to methamphetamine and pot as well,” he said.
Noting the high level of teamwork involved in the substance abuse program, Sellers said the treatment highlights the level of attentiveness compared to his earlier incarceration at different state prisons.
“When you start off with a 14-year sentence, they don’t even know who you are,” he said. “And here, Mr. Davis, he’s personalized with each one of us on many occasions every day.”
Because of their time spent behind bars, Porter and Sellers are expected to return to new drugs on the streets that are foreign to the Hall County inmates.
Porter recalled the horror of one drug he said caused a person’s skin to peel to the point of exposing bones.
“If you’ve been doing drugs as long as I’ve been doing, a trigger is real easy,” he said. “It’s not easy to go back on the street and not be triggered by some kind of drug.”
The choice to stay clean, Fuller said, could be summarized by an old Native American folktale, where a boy wonders which wolf will win: one fueled by anger and guilt or the other by love and kindness.
“It’s what you choose to feed,” Fuller said. “It’s the path that you choose to walk.”
Upon release, Porter said he hopes to get his commercial driver’s license to drive a truck and to be closer with his 22-year-old son, Joshua.
“My dream is to go out, take care of my son, be a father once again, live in society like a hard-working person should and continue to be drug-free,” he said.
Sellers is looking at the possibility of welding, a new career path he can consider as part of the REACT program’s partnership with Lanier Tech and local employers.
“I’m a pretty good learner at things I try,” he said. “I’ve never tried to weld. This is a great opportunity to go over to that school.”
When the time comes for release, Davis said he hopes the inaugural graduates will return to the chapel for future ceremonies dedicated to those getting clean.
“I’m looking forward to some of you guys coming back and sitting up here and speaking to the next group — sitting up here, not down here,” Davis said motioning to the chapel’s stage. “Not in whites, in street clothes.”