The War on Confidential Informants

Anthony Papa knows the burn of betrayal.

Today he’s an accomplished man—a published author and staff member at the Drug Policy Alliance—but in the mid-’80s, his life wasn’t in such a bright place.

In 1985, Papa was living in the Bronx with his wife and daughter. He was self-employed, installing car alarms. He was an avid bowler, but also an avid gambler. He went to bowling alleys and bet on other bowlers, and sometimes he was up, but at the start of 1985, he was down. Money was tight and his wife gave him an ultimatum; make rent or get out. One of his bowling buddies in Westchester stepped in, seemingly to save the day.

“He asked me if I wanted to make a fast buck. All I had to do was deliver an envelope to Mount Vernon.”

After some nerves and reconsiderations, Papa eventually went through and delivered the goods to a mysterious man in a tow truck.

“I walked into a bust,” he said. The bowling buddy who’d “helped” him was already in legal hot water himself, “so the more people he got involved, the less time he got,” Papa recalled.

“He was setting up all his friends, people who weren’t even doing drugs.” Papa had dabbled in drugs, but he was by no means a drug dealer—just a desperate man who was out of options.

After his arrest, Papa was offered the chance to do what his bowling buddy did and become a confidential informant in exchange for a reduced sentence.

“I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I knew at that point that I would just get deeper in the hole.” Instead, he took his case to trial and ended up with two sentences of 15 to life under New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws. He served 12 years before he was granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki.

Although today he’s doing well, the events that led to Papa’s arrest are not uncommon. Every day, confidential police informants are used to make drug busts. Sometimes they’re snagging bigger dealers, but sometimes—as in Papa’s case—they’re setting up bit players for big arrests.

The latter scenario is something that 60 Minutes focused on in a December 2015 segment with Lesley Stahl. The in-depth investigation looked at some of the tragic outcomes when the use of confidential informants doesn’t go as planned.

The show highlighted the cases of Andrew Sadek and Rachel Hoffman, both college students who were arrested with small amounts of drugs and pressured to work as confidential informants. Both ended up dead. Sadek was missing for months before he was found near a river, shot in the head. His backpack was weighted down with rocks. Hoffman was shot five times and dumped in a ditch. Both were college students with bright futures.

Although 60 Minutes used examples like those to outline the problematic nature of using confidential informants, the show didn’t include stories like Papa’s. To be more specific, the youth profiled in the show were all white.

Getting data about the demographics of confidential informants is difficult, to say the least. In fact, it’s hard to even get a good handle on how many confidential informants are used every year.

“By their nature, you’re not supposed to know who they are, so it’s very hard to say how much they’re actually used,” said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Nsombi Lambright, previous executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi and current executive director of One Voice, said that anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of confidential informants are minorities.

“Overwhelmingly we’ve seen that the use of confidential informants is in poor and African American communities. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen in other communities, but that is where we’ve seen the overwhelming use just because of the simplicity of entering into certain communities,” she said.

Typically, more privileged communities are more likely to have access to legal resources that prevent them from seriously considering offers to work as a confidential informant.

“I think that reason would have us extrapolate that people who are used as confidential informants are the most vulnerable—if you have a good lawyer, you’re probably not going to be a confidential informant,” said Bandele. “It’s very hard to quantify that or try to, but it’s not an unfair leap to think that somebody with wherewithal doesn’t need to be put in a position where they need to put their life at risk—and that’s about race and class.”

By way of example, Bandele pointed to the story of Shelley “Treasure” Hilliard. Hilliard, a black trans teen, was collared by Detroit police for half an ounce of marijuana. As a trans woman, the prospect of doing time and being housed in a men’s facility was understandably terrifying. So Hilliard agreed to become a confidential informant, hoping—like Hoffman and Sadek—to avoid time behind bars. But things went wrong when police leaked her name, and soon the teen went missing.

In November 2011, her burned torso was identified by investigators. “She was burned and hacked up and spread across the city,” Bandele lamented.

“She was trans, she was poor, she was black—it was a perfect storm of stigma and prejudice. It was a conflation of all these things that put her in a vulnerable position.”

The thing is, even if everything had worked out well, even if police hadn’t leaked her name, there’s still cause for concern on at least a few levels. For one, not everyone who works as a confidential informant actually manages to avoid prison time.

Papa said that the man who set him up ended up serving three years. Predictably, if someone is known as a confidential informant, prison becomes a lot more difficult.

“Once you get that label as a snitch, you’re dead,” he said. “You go to prison and they find out, you’re finished. You have to check into protective custody or always look over your shoulder. There’s nowhere to run in prison.” Protective custody typically means 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, so it may be safer than general population, but it’s mental torture.

Sometimes, confidential informants end up doing time because they don’t come up with enough information or don’t participate in enough busts. Other times, Lambright said, they get arrested on completely separate charges or the prosecuting attorney doesn’t honor the agreement. Even in a best-case scenario, where no names are leaked and no one is injured, confidential informants don’t necessarily get off scot-free.

A second problem with confidential informants is reliability.

“If somebody is facing time themselves, then of course they’ll do anything to get a reduction in time,” said Lambright. That was a problem the New Jersey ACLU outlined in a 2011 report examining the use of confidential informants in the Garden State.

“Police survey responses and community interviews indicate that police sometimes take CIs at their word without first carefully and independently corroborating the veracity of their statements before attempting to make an arrest,” the report notes. “Incentives offered to CIs, including leniency in their own criminal cases, increase the risk that CIs will provide unreliable information. The prevalent and repeated use of drug-addicted civilians as CIs increases the risk that the information they provide may be unreliable.”

According to the ACLU, unreliable testimony from informants is “one of the largest sources of wrongful convictions in the country.”

Part of the reason this happens is simply a lack of oversight. As the 60 Minutes segment pointed out, there’s typically no real training for the informants who are essentially being sent out to do police work.

As the New Jersey ACLU outlined, informants in the Garden State are often not properly registered and agreements are not set out in writing as they should be, as per a mandate from the state’s Attorney General. In fact, the report found that 44.6% of law enforcement personnel surveyed did not even know the Attorney General had a policy regarding the use of confidential informants.

When the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on confidential informants in September 2015, they found a similar lack of oversight and a lack of sufficient policies for the federal agencies examined.

Although the use of confidential informants presents clear problems, Lambright said that there aren’t a lot of groups specifically focusing on activism around the issue of confidential informants, even though some advocacy organizations make it part of a drug reform platform.

One organization that has been very clear about its stance on confidential informants is the ACLU. On its website, the organization outlines some changes that could make the use of informants less problematic. Those changes include everything from requiring corroboration to improve informant reliability, broadening data collection to better evaluate the efficacy of using informants, and limiting the use of informants to serious crimes instead of non-violent drug offenses.

For Papa, that’s still not enough.

“It should be banned,” he said. “People should not be threatened or deals made based on putting other people in dangerous situations.”

“To police, it’s acceptable when really it’s not.”

This story originally appeared on The Fix.


Get Fit, Prison-Style, Without Doing Time

They’re killing time before class and Sultan Malik muses, “I just feel like I’m catching up.”

And caught up he has. After 14 years in prison, Malik has now graduated from college and is working as a fitness instructor at ConBody.

via Facebook

Calling out orders like a drill instructor, he leads the class through a series of burpees, jumping jacks and squat jacks.

This isn’t your regular fitness class. ConBody is a fitness program founded, staffed, designed and run by former prisoners like Malik and the program’s charismatic and impressive founder Coss Marte.

“Let’s go! Come on,” Malik shouts. It’s three days before Christmas, but Malik’s not slacking off.

Marte and Malik both did time—they’re some of the cons in ConBody—but they met on the outside, when a newly released Malik was looking for help putting together a resume and Marte was working as a resume maker.

“It was an instantaneous bond,” Malik said.

Malik was doing time not for drugs, but for robbing drug spots à la The Wire’s Omar. Marte, on the other hand, was selling drugs. A Manhattan native, Marte was arrested in 2009 in a bust big enough that the website of the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor still has a post about it in the “Significant Case Archive.”

Marte wasn’t even a teenager yet when he started dealing.

“At 11 years old, my cousin popped out a bag of weed and was like, ‘You wanna smoke?’” he recounted. “We rolled up a nasty blunt and it was lookin’ like a football, but we smoked it and we got high.”

Marte wasn’t just interested in getting stoned, though; he quickly realized that the better high was selling. But, with selling drugs came the possibility of arrest – and soon that possibility became a reality. “I was in-and-out of jail since I was 13,” he said. “The first time I was arrested right on the block in the local park of the neighborhood. The second time I was 15 or 16 and I did about a year in a drug program.”

Then, he went to the big leagues when he went to state prison in 2006, and again in 2010, after his 2009 arrest. During one of his stints behind bars, he came up with a plan for a better way to sell drugs. “I thought of the idea of having all my friends dress up in suits and ties and that way we won’t get stopped by the police. We won’t look like we’re selling drugs,” he said. So when he got out, that’s just what he did.

He made up business cards and started dressing nice, in hopes of evading police attention. In the process, he built up a booming business. By the time he was 19, Marte said, he was pulling in $2 million a year. Now, he’s out of the drug world—but he said the allure of being a drug dealer and enjoying that kind of wealth can be almost as addictive as the drugs themselves.

“It’s definitely an addiction. I mean, it was something that kept me up three days at a time,” he said. “I was super money hungry, going out there with the thrill of driving down the street with a whole bunch of stuff and the cops behind you. It’s a freedom as well, the freedom of not having a job and working for yourself even though you feel incarcerated in that world.”

So what turned it around for Marte?

“I hit rock bottom,” he said. After his last arrest, Marte continued selling drugs in prison and experimented with some pills, but then he got sent to solitary confinement—when he should have had two months left before his release.

“That really hit me hard. Not being in the cell, but knowing that I had only two months to go home,” he said. “I felt like I’d been doing the right thing; I was ready to go home. I was playing the victim,” Marte admitted.

“I wrote out everything I was feeling and I wrote to my family to tell them I wouldn’t be out in two months. It was a 10-page letter and I didn’t have a stamp so I just left it on the little table in my cell and didn’t send it. I received a letter a week saying, ‘We found out where you at and you should read Psalm 91.’” Marte was not, at that point, very religiously inclined, so at first he did not heed the advice.

Then, he decided to give it a go. “After a couple days I decided to open the Bible and read that and a stamp fell out of the Bible and that sent chills down my spine when I think about it now,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘I can’t go back. I need to do something different.’”

It was his awakening, his moment of clarity. “At that point it hit, and I was really regretful. I wanted to know how I could give back – I’d destroyed so many other people’s lives,” he said. “And then I began to realize I was already helping these guys in the yard, working out and things.”

When Marte was released in 2013, he had a new lease on life.

“When I came home I started doing a boot camp in the local park,” he said. It was the same park he’d been arrested in as a kid. Although he’d considered the possibility while still behind bars, at first he didn’t really think that making prison-style fitness into a career would pan out.

“Initially, I wasn’t charging for classes and then I got my first customer by accident. I picked up this dirty old pipe that was on the ground and stuck it between fences at the park and I was doing pull-ups because there were no pull-up bars. Then one morning I’m training people and one guy jumps on the bar and tries to do a pull-up and I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s mine! You got to pay me to use that!’ And he said, ‘How much do you charge?’” Marte hadn’t really thought it through and just threw out a number: $200. The man agreed and became Marte’s first client.

via Twitter

From there, Marte picked up more clients and gave more thought to what a structured program would look like. His workouts don’t require equipment; they’re things you could actually do in a prison cell or in the rec yard. In part, it’s based on the exercise-intenseLakeview “shock” incarceration program. 

Also, Marte made the decision to make sure his hiring practices were in line with the concept of ConBody. “I came up with the idea of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals to teach our classes because those are the people that I knew and they needed help,” he said. Accordingly, Marte has hired trainers with all sorts of records—from robbery to drug dealing.

He formally launched a business with the help of Defy Ventures and by June 2015, Marte was able to make ConBody into his full-time job.

At first, ConBody was renting rooms in other buildings, but on Jan. 1 they opened their own space on Broome Street. The inside of ConBody plays on the prison theme, with a front desk made of cinderblocks, a real prison gate for a door and art showing a prison escape on one wall.

For Marte, the location of the studio is symbolic: “It’s right on the block where I used to sell drugs at.”

His life—and his life rebooted—sounds almost unimaginable. Or, as his girlfriend and ConBody co-conspirator Jennifer Shaw pointed out, it all sounds almost like the start of a joke.

“It’s like, ‘A couple of drug dealers and a bank robber walked into a fitness studio,’” she said with a laugh.

But it’s no joke—they really did, and they’ve been wildly successful.

This story was originally published on The Fix.

Out for Good: An Overview of Reentry Efforts in Tompkins County

Every year, close to 700,000 people are released from jails and prisons in the United States. More than 700 of them are released from the jail right here in Tompkins County.

Those individuals are “reentering citizens,” and, as criminal justice reform moves into the national spotlight, reentry is just one aspect of reform that is gaining steam locally. Reentering citizens can face an array of challenges, including finding a job when they have a criminal record, securing housing without any savings, and transportation to meeting parole and probation requirements.

José Peliot of Civic Ensemble

Ten years ago, there was relatively little to speak of in the way of reentry efforts in Tompkins County. Now there’s a smattering of local groups dedicating resources to everything from college preparation to acting, all in the name of reentry.

Reentry Subcommittee

One big player in local reentry efforts could be the county government. In its current iteration the 2016 budget includes $100,000 in target contingency funds to support a reentry program, the specifics of which will be worked out as the year progresses. The decision to fund reentry support was based on recommendations from the Criminal Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration Board’s Reentry Subcommittee.

The county’s current interest in looking at reentry grew out of the jail expansion. In addition to prompting the creation of the Jail Alternatives Task Force, the decision to install seven more jail beds eventually led to the creation of the Reentry Subcommittee in early 2015.

The group was charged with the tasks of developing recommendations for a reentry program, identifying funding sources to implement those recommendations, and developing tools to track recidivism and program efficacy.

“Why are we talking about reentry? I think everyone’s pretty aware that there’s a revolving door syndrome,” Patricia Buechel, subcommittee co-chair and county probation director, told the county legislature during an Oct. 6 presentation on the group’s recommendations.

To understand who exactly is part of the reentering population, Buechel—along with co-chair Deborah Dietrich and CJATI Chair Suzi Cook—offered up some data from the county jail.

In 2014 the jail had a total of 794 inmates, 68 percent of whom were unsentenced. The jail population is relatively young—64 percent were under 33 years old—and 80 percent male.

Although the jail population is mostly white—72 percent—African Americans are significantly over-represented. While 23 percent of the jail population is black, according to the Tompkins County Health Department’s most recent county health assessment, only 4 percent of the county population is black.

Since 2008 the jail has had a limited reentry program in place. It began as a pilot project, but it doesn’t actually get any specific funding.

Teheran Forest of Civic Ensemble

In a nutshell, the reentry program helps inmates complete Department of Social Services (DSS) applications, offers transport to DSS for an intake appointment, and provides assessments for other needs. However, the current program is only available to a small fraction of the jail population.

To be eligible, inmates must be sentenced and have at least 45 days left to serve. They can’t be on parole or probation after their release, they can’t have participated in the reentry program previously, and they must be planning to stay in Tompkins County.

As a result of those restrictions, only 14 percent of sentenced inmates—143 people—have gone through the program since it was created seven years ago.

Despite its limited scope, there are some indications the reentry program may be working. The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2005 found that more than 50 percent of state prisoners recidivate. Though there isn’t recidivism data for the county jail overall, reentry participants are reincarcerated about 35 percent of the time, according to the subcommittee report. However, that number only measures returns to the Tompkins County Jail and thus commitments to other county jails aren’t included.

Although the subcommittee expressed optimism about the program’s low recidivism rate, it’s hard to make significant conclusions from such limited data.

To improve and expand the program’s outcome, the subcommittee offered a number of recommendations (including better data collection). Some highlights of the 16-page report include:

Hire two full-time reentry coordinators to create discharge plans, identify needs pre-release, and provide follow-up in the community.

Create transitional housing in the city, staffed by a resident advisor. About 50 percent of inmates said they were unsure of their housing upon release. Transitional housing, the subcommittee notes in its report, “would provide a supportive atmosphere for those high risk inmates leaving the jail who have no or inappropriate housing.”

Implement more jail programming, possibly at off-site locations. Educational opportunities, college orientation programs, money management, and addiction treatment programs were all identified as options that could help provide inmates with better tools for the real world after their release.

Consider “Ban the Box” legislation at both the county and city level, in order to reduce barriers to employment by removing questions about criminal background from job applications.

Create a van service to help reentering citizens in rural areas get to appointments and jobs.

Create a mentoring program. The report notes, “Lack of emotional support upon release from incarceration is an identified issue for those leaving both the prison system and the Tompkins County Jail.”

Improve the process for getting identification post-release. Some reentering citizens struggle with finding the necessary documentation to get state ID. The report notes that the Department of Motor Vehicles has agreed to accept enhanced sheriff’s ID cards—which could be given to reentry program inmates—for points toward proving identity for a license.

The legislature, at the urging of Legislator Martha Robertson (D-Dryden), began by tackling the first of those suggestions in this year’s budget, but there are other groups already in place and working to address some of the remaining recommendations.

Mary Bogan College Initiative

“The thing about reentry is it’s a cloth, and every single person who offers support is a thread in that cloth,” said Benay Rubenstein.

Rubenstein, an energetic woman with decades of experience working in prison college programs, wants to add another thread to Tompkins County’s cloth.

That’s why she created the Mary Bogan College Initiative (MCBI). Funded by private donations, MCBI is intended to “provide a bridge-to-college program for the entire reentry community here in Tompkins County.” Basically, that means helping current and former inmates figure out how to navigate the college application and preparation process.

Starting in October, Rubenstein and volunteer academic counselor Laura Komor began meeting with groups inside and outside the jail to provide academic counseling services.

Rubenstein said that Ray Bunce, the jail captain, has offered eager support.

Benay Rubenstein of the Mary Bogan College Initiative

“Number one, he’s going to be posting our information in the dormitories in the jail, and we’re asking that anyone who’s interested in having a meeting with an academic counselor put in a request to meet for one-on-one appointments,” she said. “Then when they come home we can take the next step, which would be college prep courses or remedial work. Or, if a person is ready to apply, it could be assistance with applications, financial aid, dealing with outstanding loans, and dealing with the special application process for people with felonies.”

The program is named after a long-time New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision employee who passed away in 2011.

MCBI’s seed funding came from one of Bogan’s close friends, Park Foundation Board of Trustees President Adelaide Gomer. Rubenstein hopes to find other sources to grow that seed funding into a tree.

“At the moment the MBCI project is running on a shoestring budget, although I’m giving it my all in the hopes that more funding will follow,” she said.

Rubenstein said that once there are additional funds in line, there is a possibility that the program could expand to other counties. Eventually, it could lead to more jobs for reentering citizens.

“My plan is to hire formerly incarcerated people to staff this program as soon as possible,” she added. “Also, volunteers are welcome. There is much to do, including outreach, academic instruction and tutoring, building a website, and on and on.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension

It’s not just community groups and the county government that have become involved in reentry efforts—the Big Red behemoth up the hill has stepped on board too.

Cornell is already home to the Cornell Prison Education Program, which seeks to provide a college education for state prisoners, but now the university is expanding its efforts, as the Cornell Cooperative Extension is housing a part-time reentry specialist position.

Lisa Ellin—who has also been involved in Civic Ensemble’s project (see below)—is currently filling that position. While many of the other reentry efforts underway focus on life after jail, Ellin is focusing on life in prison.

Right now, she’s running parenting classes at state prisons in order to help men learn how to maintain and rebuild family relationships upon their release.

“The research shows that family connections and family involvement in reentry is critical,” Ellin said. “What I’m doing is helping to develop tools and skills with these men so they can play a powerful role in their child[ren]’s lives.”

Ellin said she also works on alternatives to violence programs and hopes to expand offerings to other facilities, possibly including the county jail.

Civic Ensemble

“What the arts can do is give a glimpse of another way,” said Sarah Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s director of civic engagement. “In theatre there’s no wrong answer.”

There are right answers, though, and last spring Civic Ensemble embarked on a project to help former inmates find them. The eight-week playwriting class culminated with a series of plays—all penned by reentering citizens—offered up to the community for free.

After a successful set of performances and positive community feedback, Civic Ensemble has decided to do it again. In early 2016 they’ll be offering a second theatre reentry playwriting class.

As they did last spring, Civic Ensemble will offer a stipend to anyone who completes the class and transportation will be available to anyone who needs it. The class meets twice a week, and Chalmers said—in addition to providing positive growth experience and resume material—the class can create a sense of place that reentering citizens often need.

“Someone who’s been told you can’t or you’re not good enough or you’re not a full member of our community, they now have a place where they are valued without question,” she said. “With this program, people have someplace to go, where they’re expected to be. They’re getting paid, they have community and people who are excited to see them and care about them. They work together, and by the end of the eight weeks they’re helping each other finish their plays.”

Ultimate Reentry Opportunity

The idea for the URO came about in late 2013, according to one of the organization’s founders, Schelley Nunn.

“The reason why this all came about,” Nunn said, “is because there were some serious issues around reentry. A lot of what we know is anecdotal information; it’s been a little difficult getting statistical data.

“We know of people who are opting to go back to jail because it’s just so difficult to be out here,” she said.

In addition to Nunn, Audrey Cooper and Fabina Colon are at the helm of the grant-funded project, which is affiliated with the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). One of the key aspects of URO’s problem-solving approach is the “collective impact model.”

“It’s really an approach that is used to solve large-scale social issues,” Nunn said. “It goes a step further than collaboration; it brings key organizations and individuals together so they can work outside of the silos that exist when we operate in our own vacuums. It’s a model that has been used internationally with great success.”

So far, the group has begun their work by holding meetings with stakeholders involved in all aspects of a reentering citizen’s life. That has included representatives from fields including mental health, education, probation, and more.

Also, URO plans to start a mentoring program for newly released members of the community.

Colon said that within the next year, they expect to hire one position to coordinate the volunteer mentoring program and another two positions to facilitate working groups for reentry stakeholders.

“There are definitely gaps here in Tompkins County and Ithaca that are pretty serious,” Colon said. “I think that we have a lot of work to do.”

This piece originally appeared in the Ithaca Times. 

Safe Injection Facilities: Out of Harm’s Way

Damien Trimingham was a bright kid. He was well-liked and a successful athlete. He came from a good family. He did not seem destined for a life of addiction— and indeed he wasn’t.

At just 22, Damien died of a heroin overdose.

The police did not notify his worried family for three days.

That was in February of 1997, and now almost two decades later, his father Tony, a psychotherapist, has become a leading voice in harm reduction.

On Sept. 30, he recounted his son’s story to a crowd of more than 200 at “Out of Harm’s Way,” a panel discussion in Manhattan.

“It was, of course, a shock even though we knew that death was a possibility with heroin use,” he said. At the time of his death, Damien was trying to stay clean. His father said, “That’s one of the ironies of heroin use, that the people who die are often the ones trying to give it up.”

He continued, “I was to find out later that no one has ever died in an injection center anywhere around the world, even though there are many overdoses.”

That’s when Tony latched onto the idea of safe injection facilities (SIFs). Although they aren’t legal in the United States (yet), there are around 100 SIFs operating around the world, in places like Canada, Spain, Germany, Holland, and Norway.

The idea is that SIFs provide a safer environment for injection drug users. Staff are available to teach safe injection practices and clean syringes are free for the taking. Crucially, there’s also naloxone available to treat overdoses immediately, without any fatalities.

Predictably, SIFs tend to face some initial resistance, but in Australia, Tony was instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion.

The year that Damien died, the Australian government proposed a heroin prescription program, but ultimately the prime minister vetoed it. But the time seemed ripe for harm reduction and so Tony took action. He wrote a letter to the local paper, describing his son’s death and explaining how unnecessary it was. The paper published his piece on the front page, and it sparked debate.

After four years of lobbying and advocating, Tony said, “We got our injection facility, thank goodness.” He added, “It was a hard road because there were opponents.”

Overall, though, he said it’s often apathy and not opposition that is the toughest obstacle. “Most of the general public don’t really care,” he said. “They’re not pro, they’re not against. It doesn’t affect them.”

Like Australia, Germany has safe injection sites, and another of the panelists—former Frankfurt drug czar Werner Schneider—documented the history of his city’s harm reduction efforts. Frankfurt began exploring harm reduction in earnest in the 1990s in response to a significant uptick in heroin use. That exploratory work quickly led to the creation of a safe injection facility.

Schneider said, “The most important result of this program was a tremendous reduction of drug-use related death cases.” Simultaneously, the city witnessed a decrease in criminality and also a decrease in public concern about drug use as a major citywide problem.

Like Frankfurt, Vancouver experienced a ballooning heroin problem in the ’90s. Canadian Senator Larry Campbell—a former law enforcement officer who was also the mayor of Vancouver—told the crowd that as overdose deaths skyrocketed, so did HIV and incarceration rates.

After a decade as a cop and two as a coroner, Campbell got tired of watching the bodies pile up, and so in 2002 he ran for mayor.

“I ran on the platform that I would open a supervised injection site in Vancouver,” he said.

He did that, but keeping open North America’s only safe injection facility, Insite for Community Safety, was a struggle. Although the federal government initially offered the program a three-year legal exemption, once that initial approval expired, Insite had to sue to keep its doors open.

Campbell said that SIFs are a crucial part of the shift from punishing addicts to treating addiction as a medical problem.

“Addiction is a medical disease. Addiction is not a criminal offense. No one starts out life saying, ‘You know what, I think I’ll be an addict,’” he said.

“You can address this as a humanitarian gesture, a humanitarian idea, that we’re all people … but I recognize that there are those who don’t move from a humanitarian end but from an economic end.” That works, too, though, because Campbell explained that safe injection facilities can save on welfare, police and prison costs.

“So whether you believe in humanitarianism or economy,” he concluded, “this is an idea that works. It’s good, and it’s time.”

Liz Evans, a nurse who works with Insite, concurred. She said that Insite is estimated to have saved $14 million in 10 years. “Over 2 million injections have taken place and not one has resulted in death,” she said.

Over time, the community has come to accept the program. Evans said that the last poll taken showed that 76% of Vancouver residents supported the safe injection site.

By bringing users off the streets, it has created a better environment with less public injection around the facility but also, she said, the presence of a safe injection facility seems to encourage people to get help. “If you’ve just come to Insite once, you’re 33% more likely to come to detox or treatment,” she said.

Evans pleaded for “peace” in the War on Drugs and said, “The controversy today should not be around where … a safe injection facility makes sense. The controversy today should be over how we have allowed the status quo to persist for such a long time.”

She added, “In Vancouver, drug users will tell you that Insite is a symbol of care. This is a humane space where we are able to reverse a pattern of exclusion.”

The panelists—and moderator Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!—drew an enthusiastic crowd, and the evening was punctuated regularly by bursts of applause. (One comment that drew particularly raucous support was a question Tony posed to the crowd: “Who in here supports safe injection facilities?”)

Although many audience members came from in and around New York City, some traveled much farther, with four- and five-hour drives from Binghamton and points north.

One of those longer commuters was John Barry, the executive director of an upstate New York syringe exchange called the Southern Tier Aids Program (STAP).

“We need one of these,” he said.

He acknowledged that growing political will and legal support for SIFs could be difficult, but he didn’t see it as impossible: “I think the dominoes have to fall in the right order.”

This story was originally published on The Fix.