RAY BROOK -- A room full of adult students listened intently to their instructor describe how thoughts jump tiny synaptic gaps between 100 billion brain cells.
They leaned over scientific drawings of a one-eyed neuron and visualized how molecules tricked into chemical malfunction cause addiction.
Professor Karl Kabza crossed off squares on the chalk board to show how cocaine suffocates the brain's uptake of serotonin, the human neurotransmitter that modulates mood, aggression and sleep.
He mapped out a path of alcohol addiction, telling how drugs are sometimes used to stop it or change it, how chemical counteraction works and sometimes doesn't, how the body craves chemical balance.
Kabza listed side effects ranging from nausea to cardiac arrest in eight anti-addiction drugs.
The students listened, looking focused and curious.
"Besides being obligated to go by FDA rules, don't the designers of these medications have any kind of moral goals?" asked one student sitting at the front of the class.
"Isn't good decision-making an integral part of a drug-treatment program?" asked another.
Kabza replied with a question: "If drugs remove the decision, is that necessarily good?"
The room got quiet for a minute, thoughtful.
The classroom could be like that in any college, but for coils of razor wire lining the fence outside.
The 21 students had just turned in homework finished in their cell blocks.
Each one -- all inmates at Federal Correctional Institute Ray Brook -- earned a place in this course through a rigorous application process and honor program. They are working now toward certification as alcoholism and substance-abuse counselors.
And they'll have another 100 hours of coursework to finish once they get out.
LINK WITH ST. JOSEPH
The FCI Ray Brook curriculum is part of St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center's Addiction Studies Program, a project created 15 years ago providing nearly 270 hours of instruction yearly in addiction counseling.
It is one-of-its-kind nationwide.
St. Joseph's Counselor Suzanne Goulden, program administrator for three years, said this is the 12th group to go through the rigors of training, which starts in November and continues until the end of September in three-hour sessions, three nights a week.
The competitive-enrollment process accepts about half the number of inmates who apply, she said.
"There's a waiting list."
The unique symbiosis between St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center and FCI Ray Brook is based largely on proximity and partly on an Adirondack economy of resources.
"Because we're a rehabilitation center with a focus on education and FCI Ray Brook is so close, it was just a perfect fit," Goulden said. "It's serendipity."
Of the inmates who have attended over the years, many had struggled with addiction and knew first-hand what it felt like, Goulden said.
More than 70 percent of inmates in prisons today are in for drug- or alcohol-related crime, Kabza said.
And there are many routes to recovery, Goulden said, most commonly from arrests for DWI or drugs, or as a family or medical consequence.
"Getting help for addiction is really a person's internal decision," Goulden said.
But former addicts who study addiction from the inside out are also learning something about their own stuff.
Over the years, Goulden has noticed what she describes as a "tremendous behavioral change" over the 10-month course in prison.
"We teach a lot about ethics and personal development."
Teaching others to counsel incorporates compassion.
"Any person faced with a situation as serious as addiction is facing a challenge to their physical, emotional and spiritual being. There comes a point where they internalize it and say, hey, this is not OK anymore," Goulden said.
St. Joseph's fields six instructors at FCI Ray Brook.
Goulden set the curriculum for trimesters that range from two to three months in duration, depending on intensity of the material.
The program "supports their career-path development and efforts as they expand into community," Goulden said, pointing to several former inmates who are building similar addiction-training programs in communities out West.
An emblem of the program's success hangs framed in the hallway near the cafeteria at St. Joseph's.
It's not any brassy state award or gold certificate but a handmade banner from the "CASAC Class of 2005 Ray Brook students."
Hand painted, it reads:
"Success is failure turned inside out, the silver tint of the clouds of doubt; and you never can tell how close you are; it may be near when it seems so far."