It takes years for a person to grow and build a life, but mere ounces of an illicit drug can shatter that life. When a drug user falls, his or her family falls too. Drugs, as inconspicuous as they are, seem to inflict more destruction than even the largest tanks.
In Taiwan, drug use is on the rise and the average age of users is going down. More people are incarcerated for drug offenses than for any other single offense. Tzu Chi volunteers are doing what they can to fight the drug epidemic.
A Tzu Chi volunteer enters the heavily guarded Changhua Prison for an anti-drug workshop for inmates.
From Prison to the Presidential Palace
Seven years have passed since his release from prison, but Gao Zhao-liang is still occasionally jolted awake from nightmares in which he is being taken away in a police car for drug use, the offense that got him locked up in the first place.
An addict must spend the rest of his or her life fending off the risk of falling into the habit again. Gao keeps reminding himself that he must always walk on thin ice when it comes to drugs.
To help people who have been in his shoes and to warn people away from drugs, he frequently gives anti-drug talks. Every talk is a reminder to himself to never go down that path again.
Tzu Chi volunteers followed guards at Changhua Prison through a series of securely locked metal doors to a big classroom in factory number seven. More than a hundred inmates were already in the room waiting for the volunteers. All doors to the room were securely locked.
Over 2,500 inmates are serving their time at Changhua Prison, in central Taiwan. Half of them are here on drug-related charges.
Volunteer Gao Zhao-liang (高肇良) took the rostrum and related to the inmates his own encounters with drugs and jailhouses, the miseries he had caused himself and his family, and his regrets for having used drugs. The audience was quiet and attentive, probably because they felt that Gao knew and understood them better than most. After all, he had once been one of them.
In the summer of 2009, Gao was released from this very prison. He was 34 years old then. He has been back often since—not as a recidivated criminal but as “Teacher Gao,” as he has become known to the inmates and prison administrators. Accompanied by other volunteers, he talks to inmates in the 12 factories at the prison.
Gao counts himself fortunate in having kicked his drug habit, which had been like a runaway horse that threatened to carry him off the edge of a cliff. He hopes his experience can help other people, so he gives talks to warn people of the danger of drugs. In addition to Changhua Prison, he has also been back to the other correctional institutions in which he had previously been incarcerated: Yunlin Prison, Taichung Prison, and Nantou Detention Center. He has even talked to students at the junior high school where he first got hooked. “I want them to see me so they can believe that they can overcome the power of drugs too,” said Gao.
He works with Tzu Chi volunteers in making such visits. His audience usually includes inmates and students. Gao and other volunteers do everything within their power to accommodate every request for their presentation. Since he started, Gao has made more than 300 such presentations. He gave over a hundred talks in the first nine months of 2016 alone; Tzu Chi volunteers worked 3,000 shifts in conjunction with his talks.
Gao and the volunteers went into overdrive in May, when he talked for 25 days. The volunteers wanted to reach as many students as possible before they started their summer vacation in July. Long summer days can be a particularly tempting time for students to use drugs. However, talking so much for so many days in a row was quite challenging to Gao. One day while he was stoned, he had a traffic accident and severely damaged his trachea. Initially, doctors thought that he would have to use nasogastric tubes for the rest of his life. Only his perseverance helped him overcome that prognosis and get rid of those tubes. But the accident still has its effects: He becomes hoarse after too much talking.
Even so, he cherishes every opportunity to talk to others about drugs. He knows the damage they can do, and he hopes to help as many people as he can to reduce any possible damage.
Traveling so much and giving so many talks may give the impression that Gao is free of financial worries, but that is not so. He needs to earn a living as much as the next guy. He and his wife, Xie Shu-ya (謝舒亞), run a store in Yongjing, Changhua, selling luggage and backpacks. They also have a side business selling lemon aiyu jelly drinks and vegetarian snacks at a stall in front of their store. Each night before a talk, besides getting his presentation ready, Gao has to prepare the ingredients for his jelly drinks too. After the talk is over, he hurries home to open his businesses.
He is keenly aware that drug users face monumental hurdles in their search for employment after their release from prison, so he puts a portion of his income into a fund to help former convicts transition back to society.
Many inmates write to Gao, and he patiently answers every letter to give them encouragement. He keeps up regular correspondence with about 50 inmates.
Gao tries to shake the hands of every inmate after each prison talk. He hopes that the warmth of his handshake can help convey to them his care, his best wishes, and his message that he will never give up on them. He believes that a little warmth can go a long way towards helping inmates make a change for the better in their lives.
Gao tells inmates that they can change right then and there. They do not need to wait till after their release to amend their life. He himself did not wait for his release to make changes.
The example of Cai Tian-sheng (蔡天勝), a Tzu Chi volunteer and former drug user and convict, helped Gao decide while he was still in prison to turn over a new leaf. Cai often gave talks to share his story after he had reformed and cleaned up his act, and so Gao began replicating his approach of spreading the message.
Gao not only talks to inmates—he also answers letters from them, giving them encouragement and hope to help set them free from the fetters of drugs. Over the years, he has received nearly 800 letters from inmates. He receives an average of 20 to 30 letters a month. He carefully hand-writes a reply to almost every letter. “Behind each letter is a person longing for change,” Gao explained. That’s why he treats every letter very seriously.
He himself was in and out of prison for 15 years, so he knows how inmates feel when they receive letters from outside. “You feel that someone still cares about you,” he says.
Sometimes inmates write to Gao to tell him how sorry they are and how terribly they miss their parents who are getting on in years and who live alone at home without any help. Messages such as these prompt Gao and other volunteers to take action. They usually contact the parents. If they are willing to meet with volunteers, Gao and others pay a visit to their home. If the family needs financial or medical help, they are referred to social workers at the Tzu Chi Foundation.
Gao has seen these unfortunate scenarios unfold too many times: A drug user drains his or her family’s finances and leads it into poverty; or an addict who has to help support his or her family becomes ill from taking drugs or is put behind bars, likewise leading the family into financial straits. Some of the letters that Gao has received and acted on have been spurred by such unfortunate circumstances. He knows that it is important that volunteers reach out and help these inmates’ families. As soon as a family has been helped, Gao writes to the inmate to bring him up to date on what volunteers have done for his family. Gao also urges the inmate to behave in prison, to never relapse once he is released, and to instead fulfill his duty as a child and take good care of his parents. “Once you get out, never, ever go back again,” he pleads.
Gao shares his life story with inmates. The slide in this photo says, “From prison to the Presidential Palace: the road I have traveled.”
Been there, done that
A-shun was an inmate at the Kaohsiung Drug Abuser Treatment Center when he learned that his father had terminal cancer. The family was poor, so he was very worried that his dad would not be able to receive good care. After learning about A-shun’s situation, Gao and other volunteers visited his father at home. When the father passed away, they even helped with funeral arrangements.
A-shun’s circumstances brought a painful memory back to Gao’s mind. He recalled that he was locked up at Yunlin Prison when the news of his own father’s death reached him. He was allowed to return home for the funeral. When he arrived home, shackles on his arms and legs, he got down on his knees and crawled towards his father’s picture to pay his last respects. He was wracked by regrets.
The memory still wrenches his heart, and there is no way he can undo the wrongs he has done. The best he can do now is use the body his father gave him to do good. To that end, he is fully committed to anti-drug work.
Sometimes inmates enclose postage stamps in their letters to Gao and ask him to donate the stamps to charity on their behalf. Gao keeps the stamps and donates the equivalent cash to charity in the inmate’s name. He then mails the receipt to the inmate.
As a result of his correspondence with inmates, some of them have gone to see him at his store after their release from prison. “Only those who truly want to change come to see me,” Gao said.
Some drug users’ families have also sought out Gao for help. He remembers a couple who visited him at his store to talk about their drug-addicted son. The mother cried the entire time, while the father sat quietly to one side. They told Gao that their son began using drugs after he went to work in Taipei. They had never seen drugs themselves and were at a complete loss about how to help their son.
That is probably a typical scenario that has played out in many families. A child goes astray. The parents try to set him straight with love, but to no avail. He keeps stealing or begging for money to buy more drugs, becoming more and more deeply addicted.
As cruel as it may appear, Gao sometimes suggests that a child be handed over to law enforcers, especially if he is a long-time addict. Imprisonment at least disrupts the consumption of drugs and leads to possible reform of a drug user. Otherwise the pain caused will never see an end.
Gao gives a juvenile drug offender a hug and says to him, “Be good. Once you get out of here, don’t come back.”
I know you
Unfortunately, even prisons provide no guarantee of reform.
Once Gao went to a prison to give a talk. One of the inmates in the audience, Pan, was an acquaintance of Gao. They had bought drugs together. Now years later, Gao had become a lecturer, a rehabilitator, while Pan remained on the wrong side of the law.
Pan was happy for Gao, seeing that he was leading a steady and meaningful life. However, when Gao encouraged Pan to pursue volunteer work after his release, Pan choked. He said that he was over 60 years old and serving a 16-year sentence. When he got out, if it ever came to that, he would be a doddering old man.
In the course of talking to inmates over the years, Gao has come across at least ten people in his audience whom he knew: schoolmates at elementary school or junior high school, or other inmates he had met while incarcerated.
This shows how widespread drug use has become, how easy it is for drug offenders to be released only to recidivate and be put back in prison again, and how difficult it is for drug addicts to kick the habit and shatter the shackles of drugs.
Sometimes a drug user is put behind bars for stealing, robbing, or other offenses. They may start by borrowing or begging for money to buy drugs, and when they cannot get any, they steal or rob. They may even use violence against their own family to get what they want. The impact of drug abuse can be huge and far-reaching. There have even been instances of drug addicts or their parents killing themselves because they cannot take it any more.
Drugs, any way you look at them, are a huge problem for society.
Gao has been around drug addicts who have been paroled. He has helped them to reintegrate into society and to stay away from drugs. As can be imagined, it is no easy job.
He has likened his work to planting on barren soil: The harvest is never assured. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to see results.
He mentioned an inmate with whom he had kept in touch for several years before he was released. When that person was out, Gao helped him move to new living quarters and look for work, and he took care of other things to make his transition back to society easier. But his efforts went down the drain when the man took up drugs again not long after. It broke Gao’s heart, but he quickly got himself together. He knew he must not be easily defeated. “If I was so easily broken up, how could I help the next person?”
It has been three years now since Changhua Prison started regularly sending soon-to-be-paroled inmates to Tzu Chi recycling stations to volunteer. As a result of this, some participants, after their parole release, have continued to volunteer at the recycling stations. Tzu Chi volunteers are also working with the Changhua County education department to fight drugs. Volunteers plan to visit all 215 junior high schools and elementary schools in the county to spread the anti-drug message.
The county has engaged Gao to serve as a speaker in its anti-drug campaign. Gao also goes with county social workers to visit people who are quitting drugs. The Changhua branch of the Taiwan After-Care Association, which is under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, has also provided interest-free loans for discharged drug offenders to start their own lemon aiyu jelly drink businesses, with Gao as their mentor.
Gao and his wife, Xie Shu-ya, rush home after a presentation to open their businesses: a luggage store and an aiyu jelly drink stall in front. A student gets a complimentary drink if he or she comes to the stall and says, “I’m a little fighter against drugs.”
Gao shares his life story with inmates. The slide in this photo says, “From prison to the Presidential Palace: the road I have traveled.”
Don’t ever touch it
It is important not to touch drugs. Among other things, if you get caught and are convicted, it leaves you with a record. Gao knows the stigma that comes with a criminal record, so he is very worried on behalf of young students.
He pointed out that when he was in junior high school, amphetamines used to be a category three drug in Taiwan. That designation would not have resulted in a criminal record on its users. However, the drug has since been reclassified as a category two. Now people convicted of amphetamine use will receive, and carry with them for the rest of their lives, a criminal record.
Nowadays ketamine is popular among students. It is a category three drug, as amphetamines once were. Gao is concerned that ketamine, if it ever follows amphetamines onto category two, will get many young people convicted and slap them with an indelible criminal record. That is yet another impetus for Gao to quicken his pace of outreach in hopes of debunking the drug mystique that often piques the curiosity of drug-naïve students and adults. He hopes to guide them away from drugs before it is too late.
Speaking to himself
Seasoned drug users know that deciding to take drugs takes but an instant, but regaining independence from drugs can take a lifetime. Laying out one’s drug past plainly in front of other people takes great courage. Gao is doing this to help others and also to help himself. Whenever he talks to others about his own drug past, he is at the same time reminding himself to never ever go down that path again.
Gao’s fear of a relapse is shared by a Christian pastor who, once a drug user like Gao, to this day still remains on high alert. He remembers the ecstasy that he got by taking drugs. Every time he preaches against drug use, he has to remind himself of his God-given responsibility to never slip or relapse again.
Another former drug user, now a drug counselor, says that when he counsels drug users and detects on them that familiar scent, he asks to be excused for a moment, goes outside to pray, and returns to resume the session only when he has regained composure and control.
Once exposed to drugs, a person must spend the remainder of his or her lifetime fending off the cravings.
Pastor Liu Min-he (劉民和) of Operation Dawn, Taiwan, has worked for many years preaching an anti-drug message and helping people affected by drugs. He pointed out that drug use damages the totality of the user, and that it takes love, time, and patience to have any chance of winning the battle. It is no cakewalk.
Pastor Liu Hao (劉昊), founder of the Flying Life Association of Christ, an organization that has helped many drug users and former prisoners, believes that if you have used drugs for 10 or 20 years, you have to remain drug-free for the same amount of time to be considered having successfully kicked the habit. Even so, it does not guarantee that that person will keep drugs out of his life forever; it does not guarantee that he will never be snared by them again. “If you want to talk about real success, then you’ll have to wait until the lid on a former drug user’s coffin has been nailed,” Liu said.
A free person now, Gao still occasionally has nightmares in which he is being hauled away in a police car for drug offenses.
He remembers the time when his mother had a solid iron door built to lock him in his room to force him off drugs. While he was locked up, he became totally incontinent—a symptom of his drug withdrawal—and his mother cleaned up after him throughout the duration.
He is thankful to his parents for never giving up on him; their support was why he could have another shot at life. Last year, in 2015, he even received a presidential award for his efforts to help keep people away from illicit drugs.
He remains ever so vigilant, ever so careful. He knows that he, like every person who has tried drugs, is not immune, award or not, from the hazards of a relapse. “If I ever relapsed, I’d hurt everyone who has trusted me and loved me. I’d also cause a lot of people to lose confidence in themselves.” With this in mind, he chooses to remain on thin ice as he continues his campaign against drugs.
Gao, back row center, and other Tzu Chi volunteers in front of Changhua Prison. Gao himself was released from this prison in 2009. He now regularly visits it to share his story.