Director adds strong dose of perspective for drug treatment program

Director adds strong dose of perspective for drug treatment program

URBANA — After seeing men locked up for life for stealing pizza under California's "three strikes" program, Alan Williams felt there had to be a better way.

The former prison employee thinks he may have found it in a two-story house on a quiet Urbana street, a stone's throw from his childhood church.

Williams, 53, is the new director of Canaan Baptist Church's men's SAFE House. That stands for Substance Abuse Free Environment and has been quietly turning out success stories for about 24 years.

Williams was recently hired after the retirement of Thomas Green, who served as director of the faith-based drug substance abuse rehabilitation program for 17 of those years.

"I like the program. It's structured and very disciplined. That's what most of these guys need," said Williams, who has been on the job less than a month.

Williams retired three years ago from the California prison system, where he began as a correctional officer. He worked his way up to a supervisory role, responsible for about 1,000 inmates at Salinas Valley State Prison, a medium-security facility in Soledad.

With his background in corrections, Williams is able to "enlighten" the men in the SAFE House.

"I tell them, 'You don't want to be on the other side of the fence. Trust me,'" he said.

During Williams' career in California, former Gov. Pete Wilson signed so-called "three strikes" legislation in 1994, which dramatically increased the penalties for offenders who received a third felony after the commission of two serious felonies.

"I saw 22 institutions built in my career, for a total of 34," Williams said.

In his opinion, the draconian program did not help recidivism. Voters apparently agreed because in 2012, the legislation was amended to make the third felony a violent or serious one to qualify for the 25 years to life. It also allowed prisoners to petition to reduce second strikes.

"Being a caseworker, you would read the police report and the court transcript and see the sentence and think, 'Are you kidding me?' You throw the book at child molesters and serial rapists, not the guy who took a slice of pizza and ran and got 25 to life because of his priors," he observed.

In his current role, Williams is using his skills to try to get through to the men who live for 12 months in the house on Central Avenue, just north of Canaan Baptist Church at 404 W. Main St., U. Williams is at the house during the day; other employees spend the night with the clients.

With space for 10, Williams said there are currently four men, ages 19, 31, 53 and 60, under the roof. None have been to prison.

"These guys have a lot of down time. We try to keep their minds focused. We do a lot of classes," he said. "In the morning, they have devotion, breakfast, an hour of Bible study."

They are also put to work taking care of any chores that might need to be done at the nearby church and school.

The daily routine varies slightly, but the theme is to consistently keep the men occupied and focused on the goal of kicking their drug or alcohol habits.

"If they want to, they can leave. It's not a prison. If they walk away, you are out, and if you want to re-enter, you have to wait 30 days. It's hard. Every day is a challenge," Williams said.

Williams grew up in the community, one of nine children. His mother, Addie Williams, 86, of Champaign, continues to work for the Unit 4 school system.

"I knew about SAFE House from keeping in contact with Mom," he said. "She has been a Canaan Baptist member since 1977. I was 13 years old when we started going to Canaan. We were one of the first ones there."

After graduating high school in 1982, Williams served in the Army for three years, based at Fort Hood in Texas. The Army, he said, taught him discipline.

Williams attended Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., where he studied business law. He entered corrections from there. After his retirement, he returned to Illinois "to be close to mom, plus my retirement goes a lot further, and I can enjoy life more."

A former competitive runner, Williams is looking into ways to inspire his SAFE House charges to work out physically. In California, he was involved in starting a track club at the prison.

"We were giving back to the community, teaching and coaching kids," he said.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
pattsi wrote on March 19, 2018 at 7:03 am

Bravo.

Pointblank wrote on March 19, 2018 at 8:03 am
Profile Picture

What's SAFE House's annual budget? Are these halfway houses an alternative to incarceration? It would be less cost to the taxpayer if you could replicate the 83% success rate at other houses. Treatment has to be less expensive than incarceration. 

-