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'Voices From Drug Court:' How A Hidden Community Is Telling Its Stories

Michelle Reyes
Artist and Mother Michelle Reyes told her story in "Voices from Drug Court," A Utah State University collection designed to give voice to a marginalized Cache Valley community.

Michelle Reyes used drugs on and off for 19 years. For the last six years, she had been in and out of jail on various charges, some of which weren’t drug-related.

“And even though they weren’t for drugs, I knew they were for drugs, because if I hadn’t been on drugs I wouldn’t have made these decisions,” Reyes said. “For 19 years, I knew I wanted to get clean. I hated it.”

A mother of seven, Reyes was careful to try to keep her drug problem out of her children’s lives. 

“Every time I’ve gotten pregnant, throughout all my use, I’ve always stayed clean. At least through my pregnancy,” she said. 

Reyes said she refused to use in the same house her children were in; but when she left to use, she would stay away for longer and longer. She found herself more absent from her children’s lives than she ever had been before.

After serving jail time, Reyes would begin the process of rebuilding her life. But leaving jail often left her vulnerable to relapse; after her most recent release, she tried to stay clean.

“I did really good on my own for two months, and I was working graveyard shifts and I just fell back into that routine of getting high,” Reyes said. “And it was the worst year of my life. I mean there was so much chaos. So much chaos.”

On Easter of 2016, Reyes’s use kept her from being with her children. She decided then to get clean. Two months later, she was charged with distribution. When she appeared in court, she was pregnant with her seventh child. She was offered the option to delay jail for eight months, to give her time with her baby, or to accept drug court instead.

Judge Thomas Willmore, the judge on Reyes’s case, helped to bring drug court to Cache Valley in July of 2000. Willmore said that when drug courts were first created in the eighties, the idea of a court that was focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment was controversial.

“Just think about that for a minute: a court that’s there to solve problems,” Willmore said. “Most the time, since the development of the criminal justice system, it’s always been there to punish bad behavior, to punish the breaking of the laws.”

The program has five phases: individual therapy, group therapy, participation in Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous, required full-time work or school, and probation. On average, it takes about a year and a half to finish and costs participants about $3,000.

“When I heard about drug court, I thought, 'If I would ever get in trouble for drugs, there’s no way I’m taking it. I’m just going to do my time,'” Reyes said.

She said that if you’re not ready to get clean, drug court can be an expensive way of setting yourself up for failure. But she said that every time she went to jail, her life fell apart. She’d been clean for two months, she was present with her family, and she was breastfeeding a new baby. She knew she stood to lose all of it.

“I looked at it as a gift, and took drug court. And I tell you, I’ve never been early in my whole life. I’ve never made it to any appointments, ever, and if I do, it’s never on time. I really thought, I’m going to just end up going to prison, because I can’t do this. I finally had to make the commitment to getting clean,” she said. “I always said I wanted to get clean before. But I never was really, truly ready.”

Although Reyes had gotten clean before, she had never stayed clean.

“I got clean March 27, 2016. I’ve been clean for over a year. And I know if it hadn’t been for drug court, I would have relapsed. I needed these programs,” she said. “My baby will never know the life of having an active addict for a mother. And I don’t want him to ever have to know that.”

Her family life has continued to improve since getting clean. During Reyes’s last six month jail sentence, her husband had filed for divorce. Now, they plan to get new wedding rings in July.

“I have so much respect and love, because drug court has saved my life. For me to say I have a house key again — my husband didn’t trust me with a house key for years,” she said. “I have a house key. My husband has bought me a car. I have a job. I have a lot of responsibility. My kids know that if I say ‘I’m gonna pick you up from school,’ that I’m there. And I’m there early.”

Andrew Dupree, a graduate of drug court, brought the idea of documenting stories like these to Randy Williams, folklore archive curator at USU.

Over the last year, Williams and Dupree worked with Jennifer Duncan of Special Collections, and Brock Alder of Bear River Mental Health to gather dozens of interviews like this one.

You can find a link to the entire “Voices from Drug Court” collection here.