OMG, how did he manage to do this hard time behind bars? This week the brother of Paris Hilton finished his prison sentence. People Magazine reported that on August 1 he was released after serving eight weeks for violating his parole. He was found guilty in March of 2015 when he attacked passengers and flight attendants. According to court records he shouted profanities and told his fellow passengers that he was going to kill them. It is rumored that he had ingested pot and cocaine and flipped out.
Conrad joins his famous sister Paris, who had served time after violating her parole for an earlier crime of driving under the influence (DUI). I wrote about this in my new book “This Side of Freedom: Life after Clemency” in a chapter dedicated to addiction and celebrities:
Working at my job every day I saw stories splashed across news that exposed the realities of drug use in America. From celebrities to politicians to athletes and ordinary people, the war on drugs loomed large. But I found that the public especially loved stories about celebs with substance abuse problems. When conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh had a clash with the law concerning his addiction to prescription pain killers he became a national symbol for drug addiction. It reminded me of the fact that drug addiction did not discriminate, but unfortunately our drug policies did. Rush was investigated for illegally obtaining thousands of addictive prescription painkillers. But instead of going to prison criminal charges were dropped against him in Florida when he worked out a plea agreement
This included a $30,000 penalty and continued drug treatment. Limbaugh contended that his addiction was a by-product of taking painkillers for chronic pain from a back injury. But Rush’s addiction brought out a good point. Many people with diseases ranging from back pain to cancer have chosen to treat their pain with a natural alternative, marijuana. What was the distinguishing difference? One drug is demonized, while the other was not.
A few weeks before, Limbaugh got arrested he had weighed in on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement that there were no “sound scientific studies” supporting the medicinal use of marijuana. His diatribe was characteristically callous and harsh toward sick and dying people who use medical marijuana as Limbaugh blathered “the FDA says there’s no — zilch, zero, nada — shred of medicinal value to the evil weed marijuana. This is going to be a setback to the long-haired, maggot-infested, dope-smoking crowd.”
This distain for medical marijuana patients was not the first time Rush showed a lack of compassion to people who use drugs or suffer from addiction. Limbaugh was also the man who scoffed at the idea that African Americans were disproportionately arrested on drug charges, and suggested that the solution was to arrest more white people. Interestingly enough, Mr. Limbaugh sang a different tune when he was the white person who could have easily ended up behind bars if he was not the famous radio personality that he was. But in the end, I supported Rush as I did many celebrities that followed who had brushes with the law because of their drug addictions.
In 2008 Tatum O’Neal, the Oscar-winning actress, took a plea deal on July 2 stemming from her June 1 arrest while supposedly trying to score some crack cocaine in New York City’s Lower East Side. She was initially charged with possession of a controlled substance and faced a year in prison if convicted. The court allowed her to plead out to a disorderly conduct charge and ordered her to attend two half-day drug treatment sessions. She followed the courts orders and they eventually dismissed the cocaine possession charges.
O’Neal had been open about her history of heroin addiction as outlined in her memoir, A Paper Life. When she was arrested by undercover officers, they searched her and found two bags of cocaine along with an unused crack pipe. She had initially told police that she was doing research for an acting role. Then she changed her story and told them that the death of her 16-year-old dog nearly triggered her into relapse. Some say O’Neal was treated with a slap on the wrist. Others say she did not deserve to do any jail time because of her addiction.This begs a critical question that we as a society need to address and one that I constantly asked.
Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem?
For most people, treatment is a much more effective approach than imprisonment for successfully breaking their addictions, yet our prisons are full of individuals whose only crime is their addiction to drugs. According to Justice Department statistics, the U.S. holds a firm lead in maintaining the most prisoners of any country in the world.
In 2006, the Justice Department recorded the largest increase since 2000 in the number of people in prisons and jails. Criminal justice experts attributed the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law violators entering the system, many of whom have substance abuse problems. Nonviolent drug offenders like Tatum O’Neal should have been given an opportunity to receive treatment, not jail time, for their drug use.
This would be a more effective, not to mention much more affordable solution, for both the individual and the community. Prosecutors in many states such as New York, where they have leeway to recommend a defendant to treatment instead of incarceration, more than likely will not do it. This is because it would not be considered a “win” for them. In effect, the system does not reward prosecutors for doing the compassionate thing. In my view, prosecutors live and die by their rates of convictions, so why would they want to be compassionate if it did not help with their careers?
At that time, I thought that O’Neal could have been considered a role model to millions of young people all over the world. I thought that her experiences with addiction and the realities of the drug war would have encouraged her to join our movement to reform U.S. drug policy. If she decided to take up the cause of treatment, instead of imprisonment, she could help change laws across the country.
After all, if treatment instead of jail is good enough for her as she struggles with her addiction, surely it is good enough for the tens of thousands of others just like her who struggle with their substance abuse problems every day. But to my great sadness, she did not join our movement.
Paris Hilton had similar taste of the sting of the war on drugs when she pled guilty in 2010 in Las Vega, to two misdemeanors. One charge was for possessing a small amount of cocaine and the other for obstructing an officer. In return, she received one year’s probation. Under the plea agreement, Paris avoided doing jail time by agreeing to pay a $2,000 fine, and to perform 200 hours of community service, and to complete a drug treatment program. The judge who sentenced Hilton told her that “Any new arrests terminate your criminal probation and you will serve a one-year sentence.”
Hilton had two previous brushes with the law the most serious in 2007, when she was arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) which led to her doing 23 days at the Century Regional Detention Facility. Like tens of millions of Americans, Paris Hilton wanted to use drugs, either to get in touch with reality or to escape from it. The question I asked was did she have the right to put substances in her body, if she did not hurt others? Or, did she deserve to go to jail, for doing so? Every year millions of other Americans are arrested for minor drug law violations – but most of them do not get the same breaks that Hilton, O’Neal and Rush had received.
Sometimes it takes a traumatic experience to awaken the hidden self. But Hilton’s twenty-three days in jail and her multiple arrests for drug use have not seemed to give her the wakeup call she needed. But it did give her a taste of life in the gulag. In that short time, I gather she felt the reality of what it’s like to lose your life as you know it. Sitting in a small cell can provoke profound existential questioning – I’m sure Hilton saw the light, even if just for a moment. There is something mystical about spending time in a cage. Since there is nowhere to go, you pace the perimeter of your cell. Back and forth or around in circles, all the while reliving the crime you committed that brought you there.
When it gets really bad, you start reading the Bible and praying to the Lord for forgiveness. From published accounts, that’s exactly what Paris did. But the problem Paris faced as an ex-con is one that all ex-cons experience, and one that can lead them down the road to recidivism. When you are released, you want to forget the prison experience. You do your best to block it out. In her case, all those feelings she built up inside her brought on by her longing for her lost freedom when she was in jail.
How do I know? When I completed my twelve-year stint at Sing Sing, the first day I got out I almost completely forgot all the feelings I experienced while I was there. I forgot about how my existence was reduced to daily routines and calculations. I forgot about measuring time in reference to the day at hand and the functions associated with it – the head counts and bells that the prison used to maintain security and order. This was a problem and many of those who feel the harrowing experience of imprisonment readily want to forget about it.
Paris had felt the sting of the government’s zero tolerance policy on drug use that incarcerates hundreds of thousands of Americans. But I wondered how long she would remember it. I recall her on the Larry King Show she was asked if she was planning to help others. Paris was humbled by her 23-day stay in jail and told King “That’s something I was actually thinking a lot about in jail. I feel like being in the spotlight, I have a platform where I can raise awareness for so many great causes, and just do so much with this, instead of, you know, superficial things like going out. I want to help raise money for kids, breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.” Soon after that Hilton was rejected from entering Japan because of her drug conviction forcing her to cancel her tour.
I thought that somehow she would join our movement and become a spokesman for our upcoming battle with the legislature in trying to get additional reforms of the law. But I was dead wrong. I reached out to her and got no response. People told me I was crazy to think I could get a high profile celebrity to join our movement. Maybe I was, but I knew that someday a celeb who had felt the pain of being imprisoned for putting a substance in their body would help change the system…
Read more about addiction and celebrities in my new memoir.