Caught in the revolving door of drug addiction

By Norma Najacht

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Juliann Gramkow plans to write a book. It will follow the life of a young man just out of high school who happens upon an accident in the wee hours of the morning and accidentally runs over the intoxicated man lying on the road. His life spirals out of control and he ends up in the revolving door of the criminal justice system in the state of South Dakota.

The book is not a novel. It is the true story of her brother Chris.

A high school athlete who did well in school, Chris was a good kid who liked to make others happy, Juliann says. He wanted to try out for an adult football league in Sioux Falls and was focused on his health.

But his life radically changed in 2005 when he and his brother were driving to a wedding in eastern South Dakota. Chris dropped his brother off and continued on his way. At about 3 or 3:30 a.m., Chris was almost to Springfield when he saw a car stopped in the road.

Intending to pass by the car, Chris saw too late that there was something in the road beside the car on his side of the road. Horrified, he realized that the object in the road was a body and that he had run over it.

Hysterically, 19-year-old Chris called 9-1-1 to report the accident. He was subsequently charged with false police reporting, as he didn’t say he had actually run over the body on the road when he called 9-1-1 and it was assumed he was the one who had delivered the death blow to the intoxicated young man, although there is considerable doubt about that, Juliann says.

Chris stayed in college for only one semester. Instead of continuing his college career, he started working in Sioux Falls and in 2006 or 2007, Chris moved to Custer. He had three counseling sessions in Sioux Falls, but that evidently wasn’t enough to alleviate the trauma of that night.

“He had night terrors. He wasn’t sleeping and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder,” Juliann notes. “After being in Custer a few months, he wanted to go back to Avon where he had grown up. He said he couldn’t handle Custer.”

Juliann regrets to this day encouraging Chris to stay in Custer, as he had started to hang out with people who would prove to be instrumental in his descent into the drug culture in Custer.

“It was probably shortly after that when Chris started using pot,” Juliann says.

That was just the starting point, however.

There was a chronic pain patient in the area who was obtaining drugs legally from a doctor. He was getting 80 80-milligram pain meds every week, which had a street value of $1 per milligram, says Juliann.

He was then selling those drugs to young people in their late teens or early 20s, including Chris.

“It was addicts using with other addicts,” Juliann explains. “They were selling to each other.”

When Juliann and her parents realized what was happening to Chris, they tried to intervene. Juliann talked to Chris’ friends, telling them to stay away from her brother.

At one point, Chris was severely beaten because he and a friend owed money.

Desperate, Juliann and her parents went to the county sheriff, hoping Chris would be arrested and get help.

“We wanted him arrested because we thought they’d help and get him into treatment,” she says. “We didn’t know what he was using, but we knew he was not coming home and he was spending all his money.”

But no help was to be had, even though Chris was eventually arrested  in 2010 and charged with burglary and identity theft.

He was forced to take the burglary plea even though evidence did not support it. This was a result of his lawyer not properly representing him.

“I’m not excusing Chris,” Juliann says. “He made his choices.”

However, she has proof from the Grand Jury testimony about the conflicting evidence in the police report about Chris being the main person in that instance.

And she questions how Chris’s acquaintance could be arrested three times and have those cases dismissed three times. Or how the prosecutor could call Chris the “kingpin,” saying that “Chris brought his demons into Custer.”

“He’s a good person,” she says. “But he’s an addict.”

Chris once again found himself in the court system in February 2011 when he was among the 15 people arrested during Operation Pharm School — so called because the houses they were partying in were in the school zone.

Chris received two 10-year possession and distribution sentences, plus eight years for burglary and two years for identity theft.

Juliann notes that a woman who was an accomplice to murder in Rapid City received just a five-year sentence, yet her brother received eight years  for a non-violent burglary plea.

He did not see his court-appointed attorney for 55 days. He was told by this attorney that he was in a lot of hot water and he just needed to plead it out. He’d get two years and be done with it, he was told. That attorney received a reprimand from the S.D. Bar Association because he didn’t represent Chris as the law required.

“He was facing 64 years for the maximum sentence,” Juliann notes. “The lawyers tell these young kids what the maximum they could get is — they always tell you the maximum — OR you can take a plea deal.”

Chris took the plea deal, trusting that he would end up spending only two years in prison. However, he ended up serving four years instead because the judge upped the time by adding another felony from his plea deal.

All the offenders in Operation Pharm School went to a minimum security prison because they were non-violent offenders. They went first to the Jameson Annex to the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls for observation and evaluation.

“So he was in with all offenders — maximum and minimum,” Juliann says. “People have been killed or raped there and some killed themselves there. The only saving grace for them was that they all went together.”

The minimum security “working units” in Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Yankton are where inmates who don’t pose a high security risk to the community are sent so they can work while they also can pay restitution.

While at a working unit in Rapid City, Chris worked at the State Veterans Home in Hot Springs. His unit did such an exceptional job there that they received accolades and were invited to have lunch with some officials from Pierre.

Two weeks later, Chris was hauled into the manager’s office and told he needed to be moved to a detail at the Rapid City dump.

“A lot of inmates have to work in the dump,” Juliann explains.

The problem is that drugs are often found in the dump.

“They knew my brother was an addict and they know drugs are available at the dump,” Juliann says. “He felt like they were putting him in a situation to fail.”

And, of course, he did.

There are so many problems with this that many people a month are getting shipped to Springfield as punishment from the working units, Juliann claims. She has heard that the gym was shut down in different prisons to make room to house all the offenders coming into the system.

She is unsure of the exact figures, but she estimates there is a close to 100 percent recidivism rate among addicts who are caught up in this system.

“Chris ended up getting in trouble in the dump and was sent to Springfield, a minimum security prison, where he spent 45 days or so, Juliann says.

He requested to be sent to a working unit in Yankton after his time in Springfield.

His case manager admitted drugs are still accessible in Springfield, Juliann says. Although tobacco is not allowed there, Native Americans claim their religious right to bring it in for sweat lodge ceremonies.

K-2, synthetic marijuana, is easily accessible in prison.

Before Chris was released in February 2015, he received six weeks of treatment, which consisted of  group therapy two hours a day three days a week.

Once back in Custer, Chris had to check in with his parole officer and attend AA meetings once a week. He was doing so well, his parole officer allowed him to purchase a vehicle.

“But his old friends came back into play,” Juliann says. “He had money and a car. He finally went to his parole officer and turned himself in because he was still using. Of course he had to be arrested. There is no flexibility in the law.”

He was able to get into Keystone Treatment Center in Canton for a 30-day drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation. The charges against him were dropped and he stayed sober for 90 days.

Inexplicably, the Attorney General’s office brought the charges again, causing Chris to give up the fight. When he traveled to a wedding, his life was spiraling out of control again and he got pulled over while driving. He had paraphernalia in his vehicle.

“After that, he knew he was getting prison time,” Juliann says. “Before being sentenced, Chris wrote a letter about drugs being so available in the prison system and the lawyer admitted it in court,” Juliann says.

Nevertheless, he was sent to a minimum security working unit in Yankton. It was no surprise that he started using readily-available drugs again and was sent to Springfield where he spent three months for punishment.

He kept telling his case manager, “Please don’t send me back to Yankton. I’m an addict. I need help. I need treatment,” Juliann recounts. “He was literally begging not to go back. He was trying to get into classes. But it’s policy that they get sent back. He couldn’t get in classes because he was a non-violent offender.”

Chris did get sent back to Yankton with the added condition that he couldn’t see his family for a year for punishment. The warden has the authority to overrule that policy, Juliann says, but he refused to.

“He said my brother needed to ‘buck up,’” she remembers. “I told him sending Chris back to a place where drugs are so readily available is like sentencing an alcoholic to spend a year in a bar and expect them not to drink. ‘He’s an addict. He needs help.’”

The warden said the conversation was over.

“So he stayed away from drugs for awhile, but used again in March,” Juliann says. “So he was then charged with a felony.”

Drugs were found in a common area of the facility and six guys were in the common area, including Chris. Chris was not on work release and never left the working unit during his time there.

After being sent to Springfield once again, he was scheduled to return to the working unit in Yankton.

“Chris begged his case manager not to be sent back,” Juliann says. “He could refuse to go, but he would possibly face more charges if he did. He was very emotional — and Chris never cries. He was afraid to go back. But the case manager said policy required that he be sent back to Yankton.”

Chris was going to be charged with possession and habitual offender, Juliann says. “He planned to fight it, but they scared him and he once again took a plea deal. He got five years suspended and another felony.”

He has been working with a pastor and is planning to get treatment when he gets out, Juliann says. He heard of Kingdom Boundaries, a Christian-based long-term life skills center in Sioux Falls with a high success rate of helping people transition back into society.

“After telling the parole board about his desire to attend this treatment facility, his five-year suspended sentence was added back on. He understood he would be in until next July, at which time he would go before the parole board,” Juliann says.

However, he just recently found out that he will have to serve the remainder of his first sentencing and then serve two years after that, meaning he won’t get out until 2022 — for using, not for committing a crime against another person.

Bottom line, Juliann says, is that he didn’t understand the plea deal. They didn’t send him the paperwork until 45 days after the sentencing. He had to appeal within 30 days. Otherwise, he would have fought the charges because they would have had to prove he had possession of the drugs and he didn’t, Juliann says.

She maintains that Chris is stuck in the system. She has been writing to the governor about the shortcomings of the system. She would like to see the former STAR Academy property used for a treatment facility.

“I know it costs money, but it also costs money to keep sending these non-violent offenders back again and again into the same system,” she says. “Why can’t we use that money for a treatment facility? It’s not just my brother. Maybe we can help another family that is going through this.”

Chris accepts responsibility for his problems, Juliann says. She doesn’t tell his story so someone will feel sorry for him.

“I don’t want people to feel sorry for him,” she says. “I want the system to change.”

She used to wake up in the middle of the night trying to find ways to help her brother. She had contacted nine or 10 lawyers, but was told they would need a $10,000 retainer fee and there was no guarantee about the outcome. She has already spent untold time and resources in an attempt to help her brother.

Nevertheless, she trusts that her book will have a happy ending. Somewhere, somehow, things will change and Chris will get the help he needs. She and a group of like-minded people have started Recovery Intervention Support Education (RISE) in Custer to help addicts get the help they so desperately need.

“God is good,” she says. “I believe Chris will go into schools and talk to the students about drug abuse, telling them, ‘No matter where your life takes you, you can’t turn to drugs.’”

And that is the hope that keeps her going and all the reward she needs.

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