Circles of Support and Accountability aid people struggling with addiction

Catholic Charities works with drug court participants

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — Preston Mai smoked weed for the first time at 16. By his senior year of high school, he became a regular user of marijuana and alcohol. At age 18, he tried methamphetamines.

“Once you did it (meth), you wanted more and more and more,” recalled Mai. “It ruins your whole connection with your families, your brothers, your sisters, your old friends you didn’t use with in the past. Once you lose all that, you’re like screw it. You don’t think you’re ever going to get it back, and you keep going.”

Despite several attempts to get sober in treatment programs and several arrests for crimes related to his habit, the Zwingle native, 22, kept slipping.

“I got to the point where I was shooting up drugs,” he said. “I‘ve done (heroin) once or twice. Even seeing that people were dying, I still tried it. That’s how powerful the addiction is.”

Like many who have been burned by the overwhelming drug epidemic plaguing our nation (see statistics box on page 7), he was sucked into a downward spiral. Then, he received a blessing in disguise.

“At Flora park (in Dubuque) I found a truck sitting with the keys in it,” he said. “I was going 105 miles an hour down the highway.”

After being stopped and charged with numerous crimes, Mai was incarcerated for five months straight, the longest single period he had spent in prison.

“I couldn’t even remember my own name when I was (brought to the) county jail,” said Mai. “I sat in there, and I thank God for bringing me to where I am right now. I believe that he was trying to get me to go to jail for the amount of time that I was in there. For detox from the medication they had me on, and the drugs I was coming off. Five months in jail, it was hell, but I found God.”

Preston Mai (center) is the core member of a Circle of Support and Accountability that includes (l to r) seminarian Jose Flores, Deacon Bill Hickson, Sister Mary Agnes O’Connor, BVM, and Mike Curtiss. Not pictured are volunteers John Mauss, Catherine Tooze, Maurie Niemer and Joy Lippstock. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)


A fateful encounter occurred when Mai was in a segregated cell and got a visit from Deacon Bill Hickson, coordinator of Jail and Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities of the archdiocese. Hickson suggested Mai look into drug court, a program which allows nonviolent offenders charged with drug related crimes to be released if they agree to plead guilty and engage in an intense court supervised treatment program. The initiative requires participants to get drug tests, hold a job, attend group treatment meetings and report to a judge once a week.  With the help of the prison ministry, many, like Mai, also get involved with Circles of Support and Accountability.

The effort brings drug court participants into regular meetings with Catholic Charities volunteers who give encouragement and guidance. The group also prays with and for the “core member.” Some people are provided with a mentor who also meets with them individually.  The added spiritual and practical influence of the circles gets results.

“One out of three people go back to prison (in Iowa within three years), either by committing additional crimes or violating their parole,” said Deacon Hickson. “The national average is closer to one out of two. We have done a study of all the folks we work with over the 10 years or so this program has been in business. Our percentage is around one out of five. Your chances of being successful are twice as good if you have this kind of support.”

Mai stopped using meth on June 22, 2016, and hasn’t consumed it since. He has also been able to abstain from drinking alcohol for over five months, has a job, and has the goal of maintaining his sobriety.

“I needed to make my circles,” said Mai.  “It really helps having the wisdom I get from other members of my circle.”

If drug court participants make mistakes, they may be set back in the phases of the drug court program, which is designed to last a minimum of 18 months, but can go longer. If they fail to comply with the program, they can be sent back to jail to serve their full sentence.

“What the other people (in drug court) might not have  is the sense that a group of people care about them,” said Deacon Hickson. “If you know that there’s a bunch of people rooting for you … that’s going to make you want to try harder and get you through those bad days.”

After lighting a candle and setting some meaningful items out on a table, Mai’s circle group began with a prayer at a recent meeting.

“In my own family,  (I) currently have someone in prison and other relatives with addictions,” said Sister Mary Agnes O’Connor, BVM, one of the volunteers, who has been in circles for many years.

“(Being part of circles) was a process of learning for me,” she said. “I cannot say no. I feel God asked me to do whatever little bit I can. I feel very blessed.”

Mai is grateful for the structure and compassion the circles of support and drug court programs provide. Through these experiences, he has become closer to God.

“Before I got into drug court, I wasn’t really into looking to get help from my higher power,” he said. “I knew he was there because I am Catholic, but as I got into drug court and as I was in jail for that five months, I actually feel the Lord trying to talk to me …”

Mai said he sincerely wants to change his life and move ahead.

“I have family, friends, support systems,” said Mai. “I feel like if ever went back to jail or prison then I would let all those people down … The other day I saw an officer across the street … and he was like, ‘Nothing to see here. Just a traffic stop.’ I said, ‘Do you even remember me?’ He’s like, ‘No, what’s your name?’ I said ‘Preston,’ and he said, ‘I remember you. I haven’t seen your name in years.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, and you’re not going to see it ever again.’ That felt really good. He said, ‘Good job, man.’”

The Drug Epidemic in the United States

In Iowa

• As of 2017, meth still beat heroin as the more widely used illegal drug of choice in Iowa. According to the 2017 Iowa Drug Control Strategy report released by the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, there were 1,500 responses to meth labs by state and local authorities in 2004. In 2015, that number was down to 151, and incomplete data for 2016 shows only 65 lab responses. However, additional data shows meth remains a top drug of choice due mainly to an influx of purer forms of  the drug from Mexico and California driven by drug cartels. 2016 saw a considerable drop in grams seized, 55,062 grams, according to the drug control strategy report. Nonetheless, that figure would be third highest over the last decade.

• Marijuana remains the most widely used illicit drug in Iowa, including among juveniles.

• Medicine/opioid abuse is Iowa’s fastest growing form of substance abuse, leading to more heroin use too.

• The number of opioid related deaths in Iowa rose from 59 in 2005 to 146 in 2016.

(Sources: Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 21, 2016; Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy 2016 report; Iowa Department of Public Health)


• Heroin related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled nationally since 2010.

• More than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2015. The number of people fatally overdosing on fentanyl and other synthetic opiates more than doubled, from 9,580 in 2015 to 19,413 in 2016. Deaths due to heroin were up nearly 20 percent, and deaths from other opiate painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, were up 14 percent.

(Sources: U.S. Center for Disease Control; Chicago Tribune Dec. 21, 2017.)

Cover photo:  (l to r): Seminarian Jose Flores and Deacon Bill Hickson pray with Preston Mai, the core member of a Circle of Support and Accountability, which also includes other volunteers who are helping Mai overcome drug addiction and other issues. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)