Patty Katz once thought she never would find herself speaking in public about her past. Who would like her, she reasoned, after learning of her eight prison stays, or of the time a doctor warned she could lose her arms because of strychnine poisoning and all she could think about was how she would then be able to inject heroin?
But after testifying before policymakers in Oregon for the first time 10 years ago, Katz began to find her voice. Now working on reentry issues for the Portland-based Partnership for Safety and Justice, which advocates fairness in criminal justice policy, Katz will encourage others in recovery to “reclaim their personal democracy.” She sees this as a gradual process-one resembling her own recovery experience.
“Each little piece fit into my recovery puzzle,” says Katz, 63. “I picked up enough tools along the way. That's what I think about my life. Do I want to shut the door on my past? Heck, no.”
Voice for reform
The Partnership for Safety and Justice, established in 1999 as the Western Prison Project, takes the uncommon approach of bringing together convicts, survivors of crime, and their family members in an effort to build a system that protects the public but also builds healthier communities.
Katz explains that much of the organization's agenda centers on supporting progressive legislation and arguing against counterproductive measures. Among recent accomplishments, it worked hard toward eventual passage of the 2009 Safety and Savings Act, which instituted sentencing reforms that produce savings to be funneled to addiction treatment and other services. A year earlier, the group helped successfully fight off an initiative that would have led to unprecedented prison building in Oregon.
Katz says the group's efforts certainly receive some pushback in certain quarters. Some argue, for example, that the mandatory minimum sentences that the group generally opposes are responsible for recent declines in crime. “In other states that don't have mandatory minimums, crime is down too,” she responds. But more than a decade of civic involvement has earned the group credibility.
“We've gone from being seen as the ‘hug-a-thugs’ to being experts,” Katz says.
Katz also has been instrumental in the growth of Hands Across the Bridge, an event associated with Recovery Month that has taken place in Oregon for about a decade and has expanded to a number of other states. Last year's Oregon event, taking place between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., attracted more than 2,300 participants.
“At first I was afraid to crawl out of the box of anonymity,” Katz says. “12-Step had saved my life.” But the writings of the woman she calls her hero, Marty Mann, helped her understand that she could become an advocate without compromising those who had helped her.
Katz refers to herself as a “product of the ′60s,” saying, “I was an addict waiting to happen.” For years she experimented with a variety of substances, mainly to “make my drinking work better.” Then, after suffering a back injury in her late 30s, someone gave her heroin.
“I did a cartwheel, and I threw down my cane,” Katz says. It would mark the start of a dark period in which her marriage would crumble, she would lose her home, and she would be incarcerated multiple times for financial and drug crimes.
At first, “I thought because I'm a smart person that I'd be OK if I just didn't do heroin,” she says. “So I'd get out of jail and have cocktails, and soon I'd be right back where I was.”
Her final prison stay would be her longest, at 13 months, but even though she received drug treatment during that time she could not stay clean. In January 2000 she visited a needle exchange program, which did an intervention because of the ravaged condition of her arms. After the warning from the doctor to whom she was sent, she saw a frightening image of herself as an old woman, slept for 12 hours, and awakened with a new purpose.
Katz would get a sponsor, go into transitional housing and participate in a cognitive therapy program, along with working the Steps. She eventually would be reunited with several family members, including a sister who would encourage her to receive ministerial training so she could perform the wedding of the sister's son.
Katz has two grandchildren, ages 23 and 19, currently in treatment. Katz's son, who descended into methamphetamine use, will be released from prison this year. A lot has turned around for the better.
From a policy standpoint, Katz argues a great deal for removing questions about felony convictions as screening tools in job applications, wanting instead to allow applicants to answer these questions in personal interviews so they also can report on what they've done with their lives since. Katz believes there are plenty of issues worth fighting for on behalf of persons in recovery. “It's just time we stand up and tell the good news,” she says.
Addiction Professional 2011 March-April;9(2):48