Doug Dunbar spent almost 30 years in senior positions in American government. He was the Deputy Secretary of State in Maine. The press secretary to the Governor of Maine and a Communications Director in Congress. He worked for US Senators and state agencies.
He’s also now a felon.
How on earth did Doug end up spending 136 days in jail? And more importantly, what did he learn firsthand about the shocking failures of our system of criminal justice?
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Doug Dunbar: The story for me takes off following September 11th, 2001. I was working in Congress. That day, we were under attack, and I could see smoke billowing up from the Pentagon. Since childhood, I had suffered from two mental illnesses that I told no one about. I experienced obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety on a daily basis. As I started to process September 11th, my anxiety and OCD spiraled out of control, and I started to self-medicate with alcohol.
As the years went on from that point, I moved back to Maine, went to work in the governor’s office, and my drinking increased in terms of frequency and quantity as my tolerance level increased.
Matt Robison: And then you got arrested for driving under the influence?
Doug Dunbar: The first time I thought everyone would find out because I had interesting position and I knew a lot of the reporters in Maine. I had been Maine’s chief deputy secretary of state for heaven sakes: it was part of my job to oversee the motor vehicle division. I used to counsel people about the risks of getting pulled over multiple times and becoming a habitual offender. But I deluded myself that I could keep it under control.
Matt Robison: You told yourself it would never happen to you. But it sounds like it did.
Doug Dunbar: Yeah, at this point I had been self-medicating with alcohol for 16 years. When I got arrested again, I thought initially that it would be like the previous six arrests. But of course, it wasn’t. The whole experience was shocking. Most of us don’t see ourselves ending up in that position, and then ending up in jail for 136 days.
Matt Robison: What did you do about your addiction and your mental health conditions while you were in jail?
Doug Dunbar: There are decent people who work in jails and even some good programs, but jails as an entity do only one thing consistently: helping people to return to jail. I keep track of the people in [the jail I was in] and I see the same names come up over and over again. We don’t focus on solving problems. We return people to jail.
So I didn’t get any help on substance abuse or mental health until after I left jail. In fact, everyone around me when I arrived in jail was clearly suffering from a profound mental illness. Some of them were in the throes of substance use disorder. Others had some other sort of mental illness. But they all were in a crisis situation.
And for most of the staff, instead of trying to deescalate some of what was going and try to calm people down, I saw employees try to escalate, tease or mock the individuals and really kick everything up a notch.
Matt Robison: What did you see in terms of areas where we desperately need reform?
Doug Dunbar: A lot of the people around me were there because they couldn’t come up with very modest amounts of money to get out and keep their life together. One of my first cellmates had a bail set at $160 and he could not come up with it. He was there for shoplifting an energy drink. This is a man who was not mentally well, and he shoplifted to eat and survive. He lived in the woods in Newport, Maine, not far from Bangor, and he did not know his own age. He thought he was 26 or 27. It turned out he was actually 24. So he sat there in jail for almost 90 days and the taxpayers covered him at $109 a night. So taxpayers paid $10,000 because he couldn’t pay $160 in bail.
Matt Robison: And we’re not talking about violent offenders here. We’re talking about people who are shoplifting and other offenses that have to do with a substance use disorder…not the kind of thing we should be treating in jail?
Doug Dunbar: That’s exactly right. So yeah, one way we can downsize our jails right away is sensible bail reform.
Overall, when you experience the system, it is shocking. There are two different systems of so-called justice. The wealthy are able to post bail and go home and work with a private attorney and get the attention of that attorney. Then there’s the system for the poor and the ill, who can’t get out of jail and have a lawyer to work on their case appropriately. So their life unravels. Did they have an apartment? It’s gone. Did they have a job? Gone. Did they have children? The children might’ve been taken. Did they have Medicaid? Not anymore. Not because you’ve been convicted of something, but simply because you’re incarcerated.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.