Tough Self-Love

'Teen Mom' Amber Portwood’s Smart Decision to Ask for a Prison Sentence

By asking to be jailed, the MTV reality star was admitting she would use drugs as long as she had access to them—an honest self-indictment to be pitied and admired, says Mansfield Frazier.

Splash News / Newscom

There’s a fair amount of chatter on the Internet regarding the former MTV reality star of Teen Mom, Amber Portwood’s somewhat unusual request that drug- court Judge David Happe send her to prison because she felt “she would never be sober”—which is a devastating self-indictment.

Portwood was in front of the judge because she’d dropped out of a court-imposed rehab program in late May, a move that constituted a clear violation of her terms of probation. But her life has been one long, drug-fueled odyssey—that was ultimately bound to crash and burn — for the last few years.

In 2010, Portwood was charged with three felonies for committing domestic violence against her ex-fiancé, Gary Shirley. The crime occurred while their daughter, Leah, was present, and the MTV cameras were rolling. And of course, the incident went viral. After that, it was one drug-fueled incident after another until Amber wound up in rehab with a prison sentence hanging over her head. But after a few months she wanted out.

Asking the judge to send her to prison probably was somewhat superfluous, since she had to know her urine would come back dirty, which would leave the judge few options other than incarceration on the original five-year sentence. But he might have been inclined to give Portwood one last chance … a chance she obviously didn’t want, since she by that point had come to the conclusion that as long as she had access to drugs she was going to use them. I admire, and at the same time pity, her honesty.

The “celebrities’ dilemma” is that someone will always, no matter what, supply them with drugs. This was part of Whitney Houston’s problem and helped lead to her ultimate demise.

But Amber Portwood certainly isn’t the first drug abuser to ask a judge to lock him or her up. Indeed, while some other addicts might not directly ask to be put somewhere their access to drugs are cut off, by their behavior it’s obvious they are attempting to save their own lives by placing themselves in a controlled environment. When I was in prison more than one person told me they knew they would not be alive absent incarceration.

Certainly there’s still some drug activity going on behind prison walls (probably not as much as in years past since guards are paid better today), but that’s usually limited to higher-level institutions where prisoners are doing longer sentences.

While logic would dictate more drugs would be available at lower-security prison camps, that’s simply not the case. Prison camps, low-security facilities and women’s prisons generally all have one thing in common: Everyone is serving a relatively short sentence, so they’re trying to be on their best behavior so they can go home…and therefore they don’t care to risk getting written up for being in possession of drugs.

The same dynamic is not at play in higher-security facilities, and placating more hardened convicts by allowing a limited amount of drug activity certainly is winked at in some institutions. But even then the illegal substance most common is marijuana, since an ounce of so-so weed that might bring around $300 on the street will fetch $3,000 in the joint.

I believe that one of the reasons— and this is strictly anecdotal, I don’t know of any study ever being carried out—that recidivism rates are so high in this country is that some men and women are so hopelessly addicted, they cannot stay straight when at liberty; they purposefully lock themselves away from their temptations.

For more people than anyone might imagine, short-term, out-patient rehab simply doesn’t work; they have to be locked away, physically prevented from acting on the overpowering temptation to get high until they develop the will to resist drugs…and in some cases that might take years and years…and indeed some never do.

Amber Portwood, unfortunately, might be one of those people, and she might have a hard row to hoe for the next 15 or 30 years of her life. By her own admission, she began using downers at age 12 or 13, which, for some reason, makes the addiction much harder to kick; the “call” of drugs for this demographic is exceptionally strong.

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If she can get clear of her legal difficulties (she’ll be out of prison in 2½ years, but she’ll still be on probation for another 2½ ) she might settle into the life of the “walking wounded”—those high-functioning addicts who go to work every day, pay their bills on time, and “self-medicate,” as they call it. Their number is legion, and as opportunities for meaningful careers for young people dry up in this country and ennui sets in, that number will rise, and rise dramatically. In fact, it’s already rising.

Robert Downey Jr., when once again in front of a judge for his addiction, said it best: “Heroin addiction is like having a double-barreled shotgun in your mouth, your finger is on the trigger … and you’re starting to like the taste of gunmetal.”

I’m praying and pulling for Amber Portwood to get over her sickness. God help her, she’s going to need all the prayers she can get.