On any other Tuesday, the courtroom of the Honorable Judge William Brewer, located on the second floor of the Blount County Justice Center in Maryville, Tennessee and a 10-minute drive from Stepping Stone to Recovery, is a beehive of activity.
The benches are packed with those waiting to be called before the magistrate. In the hallway, attorneys confer with clients. Family members huddle in worried circles, inmates sit in leg shackles along the walls, court officers keep a watchful eye over it all.
But not the Tuesday before Christmas in a year rocked by COVID-19. This Tuesday, the Justice Center is deserted.
A lone guard takes temperatures just inside the front door, and only those with pressing court business are allowed entry to the three story facility. Inside Judge Brewer’s General Sessions courtroom, the room is cold and empty.
“Before COVID, when you get 100 people in here, it warms up pretty quick, so they keep the thermostat set pretty low,” says Ryan Desmond, the assistant district attorney for the Blount County District Attorney’s Office.
Desmond and a court officer, along with a couple of members of the media and two representatives of Stepping Stone to Recovery’s parent company, Cornerstone of Recovery, wait on the guests of honor: Two inmates from the Blount County Jail, a 25-year-old man and a 42-year-old woman. They shuffle in wearing striped jumpsuits and leg shackles, but if all of the paperwork is complete, they’ll be wearing civilian clothes before day’s end.
They’ve been brought before the judge, who strides into the room as magisterial as if it were packed wall to wall, for a purpose that demands all of the ceremony of a regular court hearing.
“This is absolutely the most favorite day I have as a judge every year,” Brewer begins, before announcing the reason for the day’s hearing: to grant these two inmates the chance at freedom, pending completion of drug and alcohol treatment at Stepping Stone to Recovery. The scholarships are provided annually by Cornerstone at no cost to the inmates themselves, through an arrangement with the DA’s office and the court system, as a way to give back to the Blount County community that Stepping Stone serves.
“You two have the opportunity of a lifetime,” Brewer tells them. “You’ve hit the lottery. What Cornerstone is offering, they don’t have to do it. They do it because they love this community and want to help.”
The scholarship program began in 2014 when Pam Spindel, a former extended care/Intensive Outpatient counselor with Cornerstone, first conceived of the idea: Working with the Blount County District Attorney’s Office to select two non-violent inmates with a history of addiction and offer them their freedom, pending completion of drug and alcohol treatment. The arrangement is a simple one: The two are entered into the treatment program at Stepping Stone, where they will receive 28 days of residential inpatient treatment, followed by 60 days of intensive outpatient while residing in Stepping Stone’s sober living community.
The ability to offer that opportunity gave Webster Bailey, Cornerstone’s director of marketing and business development, what he described as “God bumps” instead of goosebumps.
“There’s a gap in our community, and you all are in it,” he said. “We want to take you and place you in a program that will help you change your lives, because our hearts and souls are in the recovery business. In many ways, staying here is going to be easier. To just ride your time and stay in jail, that’s the easier, softer way.
“Recovery is about change, though, and that’s what we’re offering you: The opportunity to change, and it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m absolutely thrilled beyond words, and I’m glad you get to come over and be a part of our family.”
The pair – unidentified on this blog out of HIPAA privacy concerns – will receive a full continuum of care at Stepping Stone, which opened in 2018 as an umbrella facility of Cornerstone. In network with all three of TennCare’s managed care organizations, it is the preeminent drug and alcohol treatment facility in East Tennessee for those in the TennCare system. Their progress will be reported back to Brewer and the DA’s office, and upon completion of the 90-day program, they will be free.
“My job is to incarcerate people, but I love days like this,” Desmond said. “I’m a firm believer that there are times that a greater power opens doors, and that’s what’s happening right now for you two.”
“This will allow you to be the person you can be, and the person that your family hopes you will be,” Brewer added.
For the Stepping Stone community, bringing in the pair during Christmas, in the middle of a pandemic, is a bright spot in a year that was beset by challenges. Of course, as Stepping Stone Director Rod Jackson pointed out, the true challenge is living with a drug or alcohol problem that takes so much, including the freedom of two local residents who now have an opportunity to turn their lives around.
“We need to help patients get out of the revolution and into the movement, and what I mean by that is that drug addiction is a revolution – you just keep spinning your wheels and going around in circles,” Jackson said. “Movement is when you move forward, from point A to point B. That’s what recovery is – positive movement. We look forward to working with them, and hopefully guiding them into a more productive life. Our whole idea is to show them there’s hope for their lives, that their best years are ahead of them and not behind them and that their lives aren’t determined by their mistakes.”