GEORGETOWN, Del. — For the last eight years, 32-year-old coastal Delaware native Chase Fehrenbach has woken up each morning in a small, cold jail cell in Sussex Correctional Institute (SCI) in Georgetown, Del.
He doesn’t look like most of the other hardened criminals who reside behind the walls and the razor wire fences of one of the First State’s oldest and highest security prisons. He’s a fit, good looking fella with sincere and almost piercing eyes, a kind demeanor and an intellectual and introspective vernacular. He’s quite an artist as well. Yet, Fehrenbach wasn’t always this person.
Eight years ago, Fehrenbach was a full blown heroin junkie, who, in order to feed his growing need for the powerful drug, went on a crime spree that included armed robbery, theft and burglary that landed him in prison for a staggering 21-year sentence for an essential first time offense.
Growing up as a kid on the coast, Fehrenbach seemingly had it all: good family, close friends and a loving girlfriend who would soon become his fiancé. Like many youths, Fehrenbach used alcohol and drugs recreationally in his mid to late teens, but in his early 20’s, he was prescribed pain pills after getting his wisdom teeth removed and he says, that triggered what he now realizes was a “rampantly addictive personality.” The pill addiction quickly intensified and turned to full blown heroin use.
Fehrenbach says heroin addiction moves like “cold honey”. It’s slow and harmless at first, but as your intake increases, “your morality starts to erode, and over time, heroin degrades all the good in you and takes away the best parts of you.”
Yet, despite being long rehabilitated from his addiction, Fehrenbach still has a long sentence left to serve, and because of this, he’s tried to use that time to help himself and other inmates at SCI. He has turned into an accomplished artist inside the prison walls through SCI’s Therapeutic Art Program, he teaches classes six nights a week to inmates struggling with addiction and he’s been sharing his story with school children who tour the prison through the Prison Insight for Kids program.
Fehrenbach spoke with The Dispatch over the course of two phone conversations from inside the prison to talk about trying to come to terms with the harsh consequences of his addiction-based crimes and his determination to stay clean and not be another “lost soul” statistic to heroin.
Q: Talk about what life has been like for you since your heroin addiction landed you essentially in a jail cell?
A: When I finally got caught, it was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. That kind of tears and rips your soul apart as well, because you are grateful that the nightmare is ending but now you are immersed in this whole new nightmare where you are living the consequences every day.
This place is only part of the punishment. The real punishment is living with the guilt and shame and remorse from all the things that you did while you were immersed in your addiction that now your heart starts to grow back and your conscience starts to grow back, your empathy for all these people grows back, and now you are thinking of all that you’ve done.
This environment here is literally housing the worst of society, and it’s really strange because most people see all these criminals or bad people in the media and they are caught and they are just gone. Well, I have to wake up next to them every day and it’s really bizarre because for everyone else, these people are out of sight, out of mind, and for me, these are the people that I live with every day. People are not necessarily their crimes.
Q: You started using heroin at 22, and by 24, you had been caught and charged with 11 counts, everything from armed robbery to burglary to theft. I read some of your statements to the police and you said that you knew what you were doing was wrong, but your addiction was so powerful, that here you were holding up convenience stores with a BB gun. Talk about just how powerful the pull of heroin was on your morality.
A: Your addiction is so strong and it’s so consuming that it’s the only thing in the world that you love and truly care about is to protect your addiction. You will do everything in the world to fight it. I kind of equate it to if you are the father of 10 children and there’s a monster coming after them, what would you do as a father to protect your children? You’d do anything to protect them right? Well, in this bizarre case, your children are heroin, and the rest of the world is the monster. You fight tooth and nail to protect it at all costs. You become the most manipulative, lying, cheating, stealing person that has ever existed. But, you also become completely delusional.
I would go and commit a robbery and then literally rewrite my own personal history to the point that I would come home and cook dinner for my fiancé at the time and she would ask me how my day was and I would fabricate in lucid detail this whole day and I literally convinced myself, because my addiction 100% depended on that being my reality. I put out of mind what had just happened. I would drive by my own crime scene 20 or 30 minutes later and see cop cars and it wouldn’t even have registered that it was me that had done it, because I had convinced myself that the [fabricated] storyline was real and it had to be real. That’s how delusional I was.
Also, you can’t have a conscience or a heart when you are doing it, because a conscience and a heart is a cancer to addiction. You can’t have feelings or emotions about what you are doing because it’s a complete separation of identity so you can be a different monster. When you are high, it’s the only time you have a sense of normalcy. When you have that heroin in your veins is when you become empathetic and loving and understanding and you are the person you used to be. But, when you don’t have it, you turn this switch, and your primal urges is all you are anymore, and you do anything you possibly can to become the person you once were. Even looking back in my sobriety, it blows my mind the levels of my delusion and how I was deceiving myself and everyone I love with what I was doing, and they don’t know 90 percent of it, but now I have to live with that.
Q: Talk about getting clean in prison and talk about realizing that this is your reality because of what addiction turned you into. How have you come to terms with that and how you have tried to move forward in a positive direction?
A: When I arrived here the physical symptoms were horrendous and the system was not designed to take in people who were withdrawing at all, which was horrible. As far as the psychological, I know within myself that if they would have let me out within a year, I would have been back to using within days of getting out. The cravings for it were so intense and the ritualistic aspect of it was too.
The weird thing about addiction like that is that you use drugs to escape your problems, but during your addiction, you create so many more scenarios that make you hate yourself, and feel this sense of self-loathing and make you such a crappier person when you are sober that now you can’t live with the person before, now you can’t live with the things you just did, and now the only logical conclusion in your delusional mind is to use again. It’s a vicious cycle. So, getting sober is the hardest thing in the world because you use it to tamper down and to evade and escape your emotions to begin with. Luckily for me, I was forced to go through those motions in here without the opportunity to use again which was exactly what I needed. When you are using, you don’t care about who you are, who you were, or the life you lived before, but when you are sober, all you want is a piece of who you used to be and you are fighting to try and get back to that, but it’s so hard. When you come into this [prison] environment, I’d say 90% of the people who are in here who are addicts do not want to change, and don’t care about change. It’s also incredibly hard because the system is not designed to truly help people, because the people in those positions that can help, a lot of the times don’t truly understand the addict mentality.
Q: That’s a good point, because you are teaching addicts inside the prison walls, and you are trying to get college credit, and move your life forward by lending a helping hand to people in similar situation based on your experiences. Talk about what you’ve gotten out of being a teacher.
A: It’s been incredibly valuable in trying to reconcile with myself. It’s not penance, per se, but after I did what I did and I came here, I had to surrender to what I did, and then accept and make peace with what I did before I could actually take true ownership of it. Giving a confession wasn’t ownership. That was just a confession. It took me years to actually own my actions and come to terms with it, and I’m still on that journey. So, doing good in life is something and in here, even though it’s not the most ideal circumstance, it’s still where I reside and it’s my community and I have to make the best of it the best I can. I was involved in education helping inmates get their GED’s, and a number of other programs too. My story is a ‘it can happen to anyone’ story, and for the past few years, I’ve been involved in a drug treatment program (focusing on the prevention of relapsing into drug use) called TEMPO which is 17 weeks, 34 lessons. I lecture and we try to get guys to really look at themselves and their addiction because a lot of the time, you become self-aware by looking at yourself and your actions over time, and they often don’t know how to really ‘get there’, so it’s really nice for me to take back the part facilitating their own journey through my own experiences.
Q: Do you feel that after this many years of being inside the prison walls that you are at a point in your rehabilitation and your recovery that you feel you won’t fall back into the revolving door of addiction that so many do?
A: I know there is a very small chance, I’m going to say a 5% chance of using, because the problem is most people relapse right at the moment where they have convinced themselves that they have it conquered. So, the only way to stay sober is to stay vigilant and admit that there is still a small chance that you may still use. I plan on being proactive, and not only NA and AA, but I want to keep speaking in the recovery communities too, because I don’t ever want to forget this environment. I want to wake up every day and remember the people, and places, and things, and the lack of power and control.
I think this is a big reason why the recidivism rate is so high because once you get out, you have all these struggles because the system does not smoothly facilitate the transition from this world to that. So, you forget this experience and all that comes with it. I also have a really good support system in my family and my fiancé that makes it a lot easier to transition and that’s really important. I’d like to do a circuit at middle schools and high schools to talk about depression and abuse and mental/physical problems that can lead to drug abuse and then talk about how that can leave you to prison. I plan on integrating this experience into my life forever hereafter.
Q: Recently, I’ve seen a sea change in the way law enforcement agencies are referring to and treating heroin addicts. They are looking at heroin addiction as more of a disease more so than a crime. Do you think that is a better approach and that there will be fewer people going through that revolving door if law enforcement agencies and health officials and communities start to look at addiction, especially heroin addiction, as a disease, more so than a crime?
A: Yeah, I do agree with that, and I think I was ahead of that curve where they viewed my addiction as a crime rather than a disease. I was a first time offender, clean record, law abiding citizen, paid taxes and the like, but I got a pretty lengthy sentence. If they did look at it as a disease then I do think they would implement a lot more treatment because the treatment I’ve seen thus far is not nearly enough.
Q: Some people might look at your story and think that it’s a story of a young life that’s sort of been lost to addiction. A large chunk of your younger years in prison based on the crimes you committed while addicted to heroin. How do you view your own story at this point?
A: I don’t see my life as wasted, but to some it could be seen as that, especially to those who don’t know me and my story. To me, it’s like my actions within these confines are a lonely spark, and if you set me free I’ll light the world on fire with passion for telling my story in a way only I can about the devastating and complex issue that is addiction.
My hope is to someday help change the system so it allows people, both the victims and the offenders, to heal, to love themselves, and re-connect with who they used to be, their families and all they lost sight of. That’s how you treat the disease of addiction, not by locking someone in a cage and throwing away the key. I do know that I am missing out on life and it is missing out on me. Things like holidays, birthdays, nature, physical connection and the big moments like births, deaths and everyone around me growing up, that really crush me. It’s taken years to accept and make peace with the fact that I can’t live it yet, while stuck in this realm between being remembered and forgotten. I deserve a decent amount of time for my actions, but I will say the same man who did those crimes is not the one before you. I needed this as a wake-up call. It saved my life and because I’ve been given a second chance I refuse to ever let it become a waste regardless of where I’m at.