Are drinking problems and alcoholism among officials being overlooked?

The USA Today recently uncovered the fact that a newly appointed prison warden has two arrests for drunken driving to his name. These weren’t disclosed prior to his appointment, but no action will be taken to ascertain whether the man has a drinking problem or is an alcoholic.

Reporters are disturbed by this turn of events: “Two drunken driving arrests is a drinking problem,” they conclude. Although the arrests were spaced relatively widely apart, they are concerned that a person with such a history has been appointed to a responsible position without first ascertaining whether he has overcome his drinking habit. After all, the very fact that the arrests are spaced several years apart could indicate sustained alcohol abuse over a period of several years.

Prison boss says he isn’t an alcoholic

The correctional services official has had a successful career and has risen through the ranks to his current position. He says that he underwent evaluation to determine whether he was an alcoholic and that the finding was negative. He isn’t proud of the behaviour that led to his past arrests, and says he has learned from them.

Would telling the board about past arrests have made a difference?

Meanwhile, the board that voted him into his current position says they’re confident they have made the right choice thanks to his sterling work record, and are sure they would have been informed of the warden’s arrest history if it had bearing on his appointment and work performance.

Outside groups, however are saying that the board should certainly have been informed of the warden’s brushes with the police and his history of drunk driving. A Justice Reform Consortium spokesman said that just having past drunken driving convictions doesn’t mean a person is unfit for office, but that the matter should have been brought to the fore and discussed by the board. His concern is whether the warden is remaining sober at present, and he doesn’t feel that enough has been done to determine whether this is so.

Are alcoholics really unreliable?

The classic picture of the alcoholic is of a person who is unpredictable and unreliable, but that isn’t necessarily so in all instances. Some people are “high-functioning alcoholics”. They don’t have problems at home. They can be trusted with money. Their careers and work lives are untarnished. They’re just addicted to alcohol. Because their personal lives and careers aren’t affected by their drinking, such people have difficulty in recognizing and admitting that they are addicted.

What if the warden in this news story is a high-functioning alcoholic? He says he isn’t an alcohol addict and never has been, but what would the consequences be if he is? Judging from his long and distinguished work record, his work would probably be the last to suffer. But if he has another alcohol-related incident on the roads, there is no doubt that the image of correctional services would suffer. In addition, word of his record would get out, and any anti-substance abuse messages delivered to inmates in the prison he administers would necessarily lose some of their impact.

Ultimately, though, he is probably the one who will suffer most should alcohol addiction go undetected. The health consequences of alcohol abuse alone are frightening enough.

A blemished reputation

Amid all the fuss surrounding his appointment as warden, there is one element that we should not lose sight of. The very fact of having being arrested for drunk driving has blemished this man’s reputation for good. And although he may not be an alcoholic, there are many who would perceive him as being one now that his record has been made public. Many of us may even sympathize with him, perhaps recalling some occasion when we drove drunk but weren’t caught. Others will be up in arms, saying that a person who enforces the law should also be 100% compliant with it.

For those of us who would like to take a lesson home from this news story, this is it: “The consequences of drinking and driving are far-reaching, and alcoholism can be so insidious that it goes unrecognized.”

What should the Department do?

USA Today concludes that the incident indicates a need for lawmakers to improve the evaluation of possible alcoholics and provide treatment. The article notes that the legal consequences of drunk driving don’t seem to be enough to deter drunk drivers and that new ways of handling the problem should be adopted along with enforcement. It also underlines the need for workplaces to be alert, and rather than ostracising suspected alcoholics, help should be offered.

Unfortunately, it is the stigma attached to being an alcoholic or being perceived as one that will make highly functional alcoholics who recognize they have a problem cover up their habit whenever they can – and of course this would exclude asking for help – even when it is offered.

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