Welcome to the Other Side

Or how to return drug addicted convicts to the society. Experience of The Other Side Academy from Salt Lake City, Utah.

The minivan stops at a two-story house made of red brick, surrounded by green bushes and trees. There is a bench in front of the entrance. It is not without reason. Later we will be explained that it is an integral part of the learning process.

We are greeted by Lola and Alan, the directors of “The Other Side Academy”. This non-profit organization is a “self-help community” for men and women who want to change their lives because they are tired. Tired of using drugs, of living on the street, of sitting in prison. Both Lola and Alan themselves went through drug addiction and prisons.

This institution is not a rehabilitation center in the usual sense of the word. There is no recovery from drug addiction or alcoholism. There are no psychologists, consultants or social workers. Here, former criminals learn to live honestly, show empathy and take responsibility for their words and deeds.

The philosophy of the Academy is based on 12 Beliefs:
You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone.
Make and keep promises.
Self reliance. There is no free lunch.
Impeccable honesty.
Act “as if.”
Embrace Humility.
Each one teach one.
200% accountability.
Forgiveness.
Boundaries.
Faith Friendly.
Pride in Work.

The Academy takes students “right from the street”. They are also sent there by the courts, as an alternative to imprisonment, and even from the prison itself. “Training” lasts for two years, but you can stay for a longer period. Everything is free of charge.

The first step is to ask for admission. Only the entrant himself or herself can do this. Potential students are invited to a personal interview. That’s why you need a bench in front of the entrance — for the candidate to sit and think whether he or she is really ready to say goodbye to his or her past life and devote two years to learning how to live in a new way.

If a person is in prison, he can write a letter in which he will tell about himself and about why he wants to change and why he needs to be invited for an interview. Interviews are conducted in the prisons of Utah. Subsequently, a potential candidate receives a letter in which he learns whether he is enrolled in the Academy or not. In the case of a positive decision, the lawyer of the prisoner can submit a letter to the court and petition for a replacement of the imprisonment for a stay on the “Other Side”. The replacement of a potential or real prison term for the passage of a two-year program in the Academy takes place only if the person admits all the charges brought against him. In the event of leaving the program, he automatically begins to serve the sentence imposed by the court. If the program is successfully completed, the charges can be dropped.

When you enter the institution you cut your hair short and shave. Women should not have makeup. The style of clothes is conservative. Hints of belonging to a particular gang are not allowed. At this stage, students are responsible for cleaning the building, and also serve food to other students.

Women live separately from men. For a whole year, only formal communication is allowed between the sexes in the working and non-working hours. In addition, the first letter to family members can be written only after 30 days of staying in the Academy. After 90 days, you can periodically make phone calls. Personal visits of relatives, children, etc. can be granted in an individual order.

At the next stage of education process, vocational training begins. Students learn to work either on the territory of the Academy or outside it. They do not get money for this. Also, various trainings are conducted with them — for example, on developing leadership qualities, on interpersonal interaction, etc.

At the forefront of this program is work. Work on yourself, work with others, work with your hands. The working day starts at 6 am and ends at 11 pm. On Sundays there’s rest.

At the last stage, before “going out to people”, so to speak, students start making money. This will be enough for them to pay for rental housing after release and to firmly stand on their feet. At this stage they still live in the Academy, but they have full-time jobs outside.

Alan demonstrates how he sometimes shouts at the students who break rules of the Academy. He doesn’t go into a full voice mode, but it sounds convincing all the same. And he says that Lola, too, can shout at her students really well. I readily believe his words.

“Shout therapy” is one of the elements of education in the Academy. Ambiguous element. On the other hand, how else to convey the idea that it is necessary to live honestly and help each other, to people who have repeatedly broken laws, lived on the street and in principle are not accustomed to other treatment ?! Especially since after the shouting lesson comes “debriefing”, and the student can act in his or her defense. And still — something is nagging at me. Perhaps this is about the fact that there’s a very fine line between shouting for educational purposes and getting violent. It is good that the staff of the Academy fully understands it and conducts regular supervisions. In other hands, this approach could end badly.

What means does the organization have? It has no state funding, Academy receives private donations, in-kind donations, and is one of the partner organizations of the Even Stevens snack chain.

But the main source of livelihood for the Academy is its own business, in which, in fact, many students are engaged. The company is called The Other Side Movers. Over the past month, more than 150 orders have been fulfilled, and this service has the best reviews on the Yelp website. There’s another business on the way — service for cooking and delivery of food named Promise Land Food. All advertisements openly say that employees are former criminals and drug addicts. The slogan is resounding: We rebuild lives by moving yours.

At the end of the meeting, we firmly shake hands with Alan and Lola, and invite them to a conference on drug addiction, which will be held in St. Petersburg in November this year. Students also smile at parting, there is no tension in their faces. Because, after visiting the other side, you do not want to keep making the same mistakes over and over again …

Read the story in Russian

Author expresses gratitude to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State for the opportunity to be a part of the International Visitor Leadership Program family!