Opioids Part 5: Addiction, incarceration, recovery, and advocacy

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In the final part of our series on the opioid crisis in Appalachia, we talk to Bethany Hallam.  Bethany is a Councilmember at-Large for Allegheny County, PA. Bethany became addicted to prescription opioids at a young age after being overprescribed Vicodin for an ACL injury. Due to her struggles with addiction, she spent time in the county jail. She began her recovery in 2016 and was elected to the Allegheny County council in 2019. 

You can find the rest of our opioids series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Now that you Manchin it

Chuck Corra: All right, John lets gets started. So normally three topics random you pick one, the other tier for patron, but got to address a little bit of an elephant in the room, an elephant shaped like a United States Senator….Joe Manchin from the great state of West Virginia.

He’s been…I wouldn’t say fickle about the filibuster. I think he’s just really not wanting to get rid of it.  We’re gonna put that to the side a little bit.  There’s a lot we can say on it and we will, but one thing that always comes up with this, and this comes up same with Kentucky, with Mitch McConnell  or Rand Paul; Tennessee with Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty or whoever. Inevitably when a state like West Virginia’s Senator, to put it kindly acts a fool, everybody on the internet, not an exaggeration, dog piles on the state itself saying “West Virginia deserves this” or  “West Virginia is so terrible. How could they do this? How could West Virginia do this? West Virginia is trash. They shouldn’t even have a Senator let alone, two.”

This makes us angry and was the subject of a tweet that I put out today. It said to direct your attention, your anger at Joe Manchin, not at the state of West Virginia as a whole.  The state of West Virginia did not do this to you.

It was a small number of voters that did and voters often which were making the best choice between Joe Manchin and Patrick “pill-peddler” Morrissey. 

Big John: This one always gets me because people would have been so pissed if West Virginia had elected Patrick Morrisey over Joe Manchin – they would have thrown their arms up, but then they also are pissed because Joe Manchin won that election.

I know that we hate saying this, but in politics, sometimes it, if that’s how you feel it kinda is just between two guys. And so it was damned if you did damned if you don’t. West Virginia made a decision to keep Joe Manchin.

We kinda knew that this is where Joe was going, but  don’t be pissed at West Virginia because we can argue to the cows come home, but West Virginia, I would argue, made the right decision.

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. The state did.  Look, Joe Manchin is frustrating and downright pisses me off a lot including now, but I will take him every single day of my living life over one patty-cake Morrissey. Absolutely. Zero question. All right. 

Joe Manchin voted for the COVID relief bill. He did the bare minimum there, don’t get me wrong. But anyway, I wanted to say that because obviously it’s something that we know quite well and didn’t want to completely ignore it.

Three topics, John, for the intro, here you go. Your choice.  We’re coming up on hurricane season pretty soon. Bread and milk sandwiches is your first topic. Trump wearing his pants on backward is the second one and tutors biscuit proposal. That was a picture that we were sent of what looked to be an engagement ring in a Tudor’s biscuit.

Big John: I looked like a Mary B to me.

Chuck Corra: It’s for the gods decide. 

Big John: Yeah, definitely.  Those are all three really good. I got to give the best to our Patreon members. Cause they’re all good. So I’m trying to think f how I could divvy it up.  It’s really a smorgasbord of sexy topics, so yeah.  So I think we’ll keep Tudor’s and Donald Trump for our Patreon members, we will talk about milk and bread.

Stocking up on bread and milk

Chuck Corra: Some context is obviously necessary here. It’s kind of like when a gas line blows up and people tell you, “get you some gas,”…whenever there’s going to be a storm, it’s usually some older mamaws that’ll tell you “get you some bread and milk! Make sure you get your bread and milk at the store to get ready for the storm.”

You start thinking about you’re like what in God’s name is so important about bread and milk? Or let me just back up, where did the hell does that come from? 

Big John: That the only thing I can think of is big bread and big milk,

Chuck Corra: Big grain… and Big Cow.

Big John: I think that it’s gotta be the lobbying that started this. 

Chuck Corra: That’s always a safe bet. We have talked about the food guide pyramid and how it is a scam done by big bread. We have actually talked about big bread before and how absurd it was to suggest 6 to 12 servings of grain a day. So I think we’ve figured out where this comes from. Parents were worried that their children were not going to get their 6 to 12 servings of grain and they’re 4 to 27 servings of milk or whatever, so that’s why.

I think the more important thing is, what are you going to do with that? You can make milk sandwiches I guess.

Big John: Maybe if you plant the bread, it grows and you water it with milk. Something magical happens. 

Chuck Corra: Whoa, never tried.  

Big John: It actually turns your electricity back on.

Chuck Corra: This brings up a better point, which is really important, about people panic by stupid things. We have lived through this twice. We saw at the beginning of the pandemic where people were panic buying toilet paper, which again has puzzled me to this day because they were leaving food on the shelves and getting toilet paper.

And I’m sitting here thinking “how much are these people shitting that they think need this much toilet paper?” I mean, they’re crying, ripping toilet paper out of people’s hands in desperation. My suggestion is to get in the tub. If you don’t have toilet paper, get in the tub and wash. There are different ways to clean. They’re not ways to nourish your body other than food. For the most part.

Big John: You could use the bread as toilet paper.

Chuck Corra: Well, look, I’ve certainly wiped my ass with worse things – I’ve been in Boy Scouts. I mean, we had to use any leaf we found.

It still blows my mind. I would walk into a store. There’d be plenty of food but toilet, paper and paper towels were gone. Now I understand paper towels for cleaning and hygiene I guess. That’s a little bit more excusable, even though most people who can buy paper towels have actual towels that they can use.

Whatever, but toilet paper, never, nobody shits that much. I guarantee there are some people that still have toilet paper they bought in March 2020. 

Big John: 100%. They, they definitely do, uh, especially the resellers who are like trying to buy it and sell it for profit. Which, I mean, that is not been forgotten yet.

Chuck Corra: oh, the, the —— hand sanitizer people. 

Big John: I think that my favorite thing is like every time I think about the pandemic now, I think that people panic buying toilet paper, panic, buying, uh, bread, but also buying all of the Pokemon and sports cards at the same time. Okay. 

Chuck Corra: I respect that because that’s strategy.

Interview with Bethany Hallam

Chuck Corra: We have on Bethany Hallam today. Bethany is an at-large council member for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. That is the county where Pittsburgh is. Bethany’s story is really inspiring. She was overprescribed opioids after tearing both of her ACLs in high school, became addicted to prescription opioids, was formerly incarcerated, has since recovered, and has put her best foot forward by getting involved in local politics to change things for the better.

Her story is really interesting. We hear about how she became addicted to opioids, what her experience was like being incarcerated, and how she has come out of that experience and really work to change her community and to change policy, not just on, on opioids, but just policy in general, throughout, Allegheny county. 

Big John: it was honestly a perspective that we needed. I think it’s gonna show a lot of people that this stereotype that people who, you know, get addicted or, you know, these junkies who hadn’t come into them, you know, like that stereotype that you kind of hear.

And then you’re also going to hear about, you know, somebody breaking the stereotype that. People who, you know, are battling addiction, can make it out. I think that that’s a really important story that people need to hear – not only can you overcome this, but you can persevere and you can then make a change for everybody else.

Chuck Corra: Her perspective is extremely important and obviously we wanted to have someone on the show that has struggled with opioid addiction. So hers is a really great story and one that I think as you said, is worth telling and really necessary to tell, especially how she’s used that experience to make her world a better place.

So here is our interview with Bethany Hallam.

Interview Transcript

Chuck Corra: I was reading up about you and what you mentioned is this actually started for you at a really young age. I think you were in high school, right. And you had some injuries and were prescribed Vicodin. I’m wondering if you can kind of talk us through that beginning.

Bethany Hallam: Right. So I grew up in a house with both my parents, my two younger siblings in a suburb about 10 minutes north of downtown Pittsburgh. My parents always had a philosophy that the more activities that myself and my siblings were involved in, the less opportunity for trouble there was for us.

So I always played a ton of sports. I was a swimmer softball player and eventually landed on lacrosse. I played lacrosse from seventh grade to my junior year. I was a varsity lacrosse player and I tore my ACL and meniscus. At the time, I really had no idea what that meant. I didn’t think anything of it.

I had broken bones before and, and, you know, it never changed the true trajectory of my life. So I went through the regular process, right? Went to the hospital, got x-rays, nothing was broken, got MRIs, found out about the torn ligaments, and was prescribed Vicodin. My mom, who is actually a pharmacist, was following along with the whole path, you know, taking it as the doctor had prescribed it.

There was never any abuse going on. I went through the whole process of getting the surgery and doing the physical therapy, refilling that Vicodin all along. Then right as I was about to finish my last prescription of Vicodin. I got cleared to go back to sports and I tore my other ACL and meniscus.

So back-to-back junior and senior years of high school it was the same thing all over again: prescription of Vicodin with a bunch of refills to make it through the surgery and physical therapy. Altogether it was about 18 months of being prescribed prescription painkillers. Then one day the doctor said, “okay, your refills are done. You’re good to go”

I stopped taking them and I was not good to go. I just felt at the time had no idea what it was, and come to find out later I was going through withdrawal symptoms. I just felt like a really bad case of the flu, I guess, is the best way to explain it.

I was telling one of my friends during our senior year of high school about it and he’s like,

“Oh, well, you’re going, you’re detoxing here. Take this pill.”

It turns out his sister had pediatric cancer and was prescribed painkillers and he was taking them and he gave me one, and I felt magically better. This one little pill took away all my pain, all my sickness, and I was good to go.

It all went downhill after that.

Big John: Was there a certain time that you realized there was a problem?

Bethany Hallam: I would say I went to college at Duquesne University, which 10 minutes from my house right in the middle of Pittsburgh. And I realized then, you know, no parents for the first time in my life.

I’m alone at a college campus with a bunch of friends and I realized that I needed pills to go to class in the morning, I realized that once class was over, I started to feel like crap and I needed them again to go to work. Once I got off work, now I had all this money and so if I wanted to be able to wake up for a class in the morning, I would have to get pills to be able to do that too.

At the end of my freshman year of college was when I realized, wow, I need this to do regular everyday things that everyone else has seemingly done without the drugs. Then one day in my sophomore year of college, I gave a classmate money to go get me pills and they came back with heroin.

That was what they got with the money that I gave them.

I did it, and that was when it went really over the edge and my life started to fall apart. I was stealing from my family, from my friends, being the person who collected everyone’s money to go get the drugs so I could get my own for free every day.

Working a full-time job on top of going to school full-time and every free moment of my life revolved around getting drugs. That’s when I think when my parents first noticed too. I was out of the house and so I had been living this double life of, “Hey, I’m maintaining, I’m passing my classes. I’m not doing well, but I’m passing and I’m going to work every day and I’m not getting fired from my job.”

So it wasn’t until I started really stealing to support the habit that I think everyone around me realized that it was a lot worse than any of us realized. 

Chuck Corra: That’s really scary to think about that and to hear that because I think your story is similar to a lot of people -where it starts out being prescribed something legitimately for pain or an injury then it evolves and it spirals into something that controls a person’s life.

I’m glad you mentioned this because I think a lot of people don’t realize that it’s not just people who want to go out and get a quick high, it’s people who are prescribed something legitimately for pain and become dependent on it.

What was the breaking point for you?

Bethany Hallam: You mean that started my recovery? Or that made me realize that my life was completely out of control?

Chuck Corra: Let’s go with both, but maybe start with the second. 

Bethany Hallam: Okay. I realized my life was completely out of control towards the end of college. I barely graduated. I had one class that I just couldn’t pass and eventually got my diploma. I still don’t know how to this day, but after I graduated college, I didn’t have a structure to my life anymore. So, as opposed to having to plan to not be sick and plan, when I was going to use drugs and plan, what, how I was going to get money, it just turned into a free for all.

I was bouncing from job to job – a lot of jobs in the service industry because I needed that cash in my pocket every day to support my habit for the next day, to be able to wake up and go to work. I started getting arrested. I was never an angel when I was growing up but I got caught selling my Suboxone to a police officer and unbeknownst to me. I got in trouble for that, which was my most serious charge.

I was charged with a felony misdemeanor, a whole, a whole list of things that, you know, could have gone very differently and changed the course of my life. But I’d say spending nights in jail, sometimes it was one night and I’d be released, sometimes it was three nights till my dad could come up with bail money to get me out.

It wasn’t until 2016, I was on probation for selling Suboxone to a police officer and I was on zero-tolerance probation – which meant that I was getting drug tested every week. For the first eight months, I was taking a toddler’s urine – one of my friend’s kids – I was taking their drug-free urine and using it for my probation court-ordered drug tests.

One day, it showed up positive for opioids. To this day, I have no idea how that happened. I know that the child was not taking opioids. I must’ve tainted the sample somehow with my hand, but I went straight to jail.

When you go to jail on a probation violation, you sit on a detainer, which means that all the money in the world isn’t bailing you out of jail. You are literally at the mercy of your judge and your probation officer. That was the first time in all the times I had been in jail all the time. I had been arrested all the times. Even I had been to rehab where I was still using while I was in rehab.

That’s the last stint in jail was the first time that I really went through a full withdrawal, detox process. I spent a little over five months in our Allegheny county jail and it opened my eyes, I was like, this is not what I want for myself.

It was the first time that my mind wasn’t tainted by drugs, alcohol, even cigarettes. In jail, I think I just saw that I could be doing so much more than what I’m doing now. That was really my wake-up call. Like, okay, when you get out of here, you’re not going to take advantage of the second chance you’re being given and we’re going to do something to help people who had experienced the same things that I had been through.

Big John: That’s incredible. I mean, I guess real quick, would you say going to jail essentially, you know, saved you from going down even worse road or, you know, how do you look at that? 

Bethany Hallam: So jail is very traumatic. Most of the people who were in the jail, at least in my pod, which was an all-woman, pod of about 90 to 100 women, were in there for very similar things as me.

They were in there because they had untreated mental health diagnoses. They were suffering from substance use disorder, a lot of crimes related to those things.

I knew people who were in jail for stealing chicken to take home to their kids, right. People who were sex workers were being criminalized for their profession. So that experience in itself is traumatic just to see people every day, breaking down and having emotions and talking to their kids on the phone and getting cut off mid-sentence and not being able to hug my parents.

Having to talk to them through, you know, five feet of glass was a very traumatic experience and so I’m just very fortunate that when I came home from jail, all the people, all the bridges, I had burned along the way with my drug use were there for me when I came home.

Even my little sister who now is one of my best friends in the whole world. She didn’t talk to me for years while I was using. I was the embarrassing big sister that she didn’t want anybody to know she was related to.

That last time I went to jail, she wrote me every other day. My mentor wrote me every day. My parents visited me as often as they could. I’m privileged that my parents had the means to be able to support me while I was incarcerated as well. Because one of the things that I learned a lot when I was in there for that long period of time was just how much it costs to support somebody who’s in jail and how I got to talk to my parents every day.

But so many other people their families couldn’t afford to do that. So I’m just fortunate that I had that support both in jail and then as soon as I was released, because when I got out of jail, I had an extensive criminal record. I lost my license for 10 years. I had burned bridges with all my friends and other broken relationships with my family.

Everything felt like it was crashing down on me. It would’ve been so much easier to just go and grab some drugs and just get right back into the cycle. But I had people who really went to bat for me and made sure that I took all that energy I put into getting high every day into something constructive.

Chuck Corra: That’s really incredible that you were able to get through all that and be where you are today. I’m kind of stuck on the holy, losing your license for 10 years thing. That’s such a disruptive thing to have happened to a person, and there’s a whole other conversation about just the criminal justice system and how disruptive something like that is, but when you got out of recovery, what was it like? Because I can’t imagine it was easy to just quit all that, something that controlled your life for so long. How did you go about doing that?

Bethany Hallam: I dove head-first into something I had always been passionate about, and that was politics. I had always cared about government, especially local government ever since the student council in elementary school.

It was something I always followed along with, but never in my adult life did I have the opportunity to really go headfirst into, because drugs were my number one priority every day.

So I was sitting in the Allegheny county jail for the 2016 presidential election. You know, I hear a lot of stories about people who say how much their lives changed after that election.

I was actually sitting in a jail cell following along all day on the radio, what was going on and they had projected Hillary Clinton was going to win. So when I went to bed, I was feeling okay. I was like, “all right, this is a new day.”

Then in the middle of the night, it was probably midnight or one in the morning, the corrections officer, the overnight corrections officer – who was a woman – started cheering and I was like, “they called it, Hillary won the election.” Then I heard Donald Trump’s voice come over and it was like, I mean, I still have nightmares about that too.

Chuck Corra: And trauma. I mean, my goodness. 

Bethany Hallam: The pinnacle of the trauma. So I really just felt crushed. Like if I wasn’t in here and I wasn’t having my life revolved around the drugs that I’m using every day. I could have maybe been out there and made a difference and changed this, you know, this results.

When I got out, that is exactly what I did is I said, I was never going to regret it again, not doing everything I could to shape the future of our country and especially here locally, because I am a firm believer that all politics is local and that if you want to change what our country is like at a national scale, you got to start in your own backyard.

I started about five days after I got out of jail – it was the very first women’s March in Pittsburgh, and just seeing all these people who were feeling as frustrated and defeated as I was. But because of the presidency, right, because of the inauguration had just happened.

I realized these are the type of people that I need to work with to make the changes I want to see. So I started working for local candidates, you know, the school board candidates and borough council candidates, boards, the commissioner candidates, state rep candidates, judicial candidates, all these different candidates who were looking for a base to help them.

I got really involved – was volunteering very regularly. Then in 2018, I decided to run for the democratic state committee, which is kind of like the state-level equivalent of the democratic national committee. That was my first experience of actually being on the ballot.

It wasn’t a very high-profile race. So that’s where it kind of opened the door to meeting people who were running for different offices at higher levels as well. Then the next year, in 2019, people had been seeing me for years since I had got out of jail – out volunteering for candidates, doing all this work.

And they would always ask me “what are you running for?”

And I said, “do you don’t know my story? I can’t run for office!”

People like me, don’t run for office. And I just kinda got sick and tired of everybody asking me all the time, what I was running for. So, in 2019 there was a seat that was up for re-election, a 20-year incumbent.

He was basically the definition of the Democratic machine establishment here in Allegheny county and he was the at-large member of Allegheny County Council and Allegheny County Council is the legislative body of our county. So all of the things that I was passionate about, right, the Allegheny County jail, the fact that our public transportation is so underfunded that I, who didn’t have a license at the time, couldn’t get anywhere without someone driving me or without calling an Uber and spending a fortune to do so.

I had always cared about all of these things. That’s what this seat was responsible for legislating about. So I just ran and I think just the fact that consistently since I got home from jail, I have been busy and just immersed in trying to make my community a better place via electoral politics. I think that that’s really what did it for me because I know that a lot of people work 12 step programs – narcotics anonymous, alcoholics anonymous – and I have been to hundreds if not thousands of 12 step meetings and it never clicked for me.

I kept hearing every rehab I went to, even in jail where they allow outside meetings to come in. I kept hearing that this is the only way to not go back to using drugs. This is the only way you don’t die is to work this program. I always had felt so defeated because it didn’t work for me.

So I had just kind of accepted the fact that I’m not going to survive through my substance use disorder. I never had a plan for afterward because I just thought that was how my life was going to be.

So I’m fortunate that I was able to realize that, Hey, I don’t need to work a 12 step program and follow these 12 very specific steps in order to be sex successful in my recovery.

I just need to find something that upholds the same principles of bettering myself and having a sense of community and having that support and, you know, putting into the world what I’ve taken out of it. So that’s what I do every single day. You know, I mean the one 12 step program phrase that has always stuck with me is you can only keep what you have by giving it away.

I feel like that’s what I do now. I’m fortunate enough to have a platform as an elected official, where I can talk about harm reduction and I can talk about the guilt that people in recovery carry around myself included of all the friends and family members I’ve lost along the way to substance use disorder and the overdose epidemic.

I can have people come up to me who said, “I’m this many years into recovery” and I thought that I could never achieve my goals of getting involved in politics because of the smear campaign that would come along with it. But I own my story from the very beginning and from day one, I told everyone, this is who I am.

This is what I’ve been through, and this is how I’m going to represent you. And. There’s not a minute that I’m sitting down doing nothing.

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. I’m glad that you mentioned all of that, especially the 12 step program because it seems like a lot of people may not have the level of resilience that you had, and it almost seems like the system is kind of set up for people, to fail sometimes.

Your story is really compelling and finding something to attach to like politics is really cool. Especially at the local level. I used to live in Nashville, which is, I would say fairly comparably sized to Pittsburgh. I can’t tell you the amount of influence that the county council it’s consolidating, the city council, Metro council has over the daily lives of people.

Big John: I think the big thing is when I ran for office, I was a straight white guy whose dad was in the same position that you were in. My dad was an addict for years and, and up until the day he left my family.

But even when I told people that people kind of looked at me a certain way, you know, if they, if they were on the fence of voting for me, you know, sometimes I kind of got these looks in terms of almost people judging my family. Did you ever experience, what was, what was your reaction when, when you decided to run and, and meet people on the campaign trail and tell your story?

Bethany Hallam: Oh, it was interesting, to say the least. So the very first step before I even announced that I was running, was talking to the people who were in my support network and letting them know, “Hey, listen, my plan is to just go out and tell it how it is, how my whole story.”

Um, I’m sure you guys have seen eight-mile – the rap battles at the end where he was like, tell you everything you’re going to say about me and then you have nothing to say back because I already said it.

So I had told my boss, my boyfriend – who I’d only been dating for maybe six months at the time – my family…because, in my addiction, my parents lied to their siblings and my cousins about what was going on. They would say I was at camp, I was on vacation when really I was in rehab or I was in jail and they were never really honest because they were ashamed. We’re trying to overcome that stigma of like a family member of someone who’s using drugs that – this was like 2006 when I first started using drugs. No one was really even talking about this to the extent that we do now, and even now it’s kind of hard to, so that was definitely the first step is making sure that they were cool that I was telling my whole story and that it was going to be in the news, everywhere

Then after that, it was going into rooms and telling my story in front of people. For the first, at least a month or two, I’d go and walk into rooms and remember, I was a 29-year-old woman starting off with just my story – Here’s who I am. Here’s where I’ve been. It started, there would be people laughing, right? Like who are you to think you can run against this legend?

I mean, he was! My opponent was a professional wrestler, a steelworker, long time involved in democratic politics. It was a joke to a lot of people that I was even challenging him. There was a lot of jaw-dropping and then people coming up later and just wanting to know the war stories of my time using drugs – there was a lot of that too.

But more so than anything else, it was a lot of people who pulled me aside and told me about how my story touched them personally – someone in their life who had been impacted by the overdose epidemic, somebody in their life that they loved, who was actively using drugs. That to me was what really made me realize unfortunately how much my life experience resonated with so many people from all different demographics, ages, races, socioeconomic statuses, too many people have been impacted by the overdose epidemic in our country and in mine, I own backyard.

It was what really gave me the motivation that like, even if there were 10 people in the room laughing at me, shaking their heads, as I’m talking about myself, That was one or two people that came up to me to tell me how much it meant to them that I was standing up and telling this story.

They believed that I was genuine. Whereas, you know, these are people who have candidate after candidate come in front of them and tell them all these empty promises. I was just telling my story, telling my truth. And so, you know, that was that that one out of 10 reactions made the whole rest of it worth it.

I always will say that I’ve been called worse by better people, you know? So nothing that anybody was going to say about me was going to be worse than what I had already said about myself when I was using drugs. So that I think is what gave me that thick skin to be able to deal with the nastiness of politics.

Local politics are dirtier than national politics. 

Chuck Corra: Oh yeah. I always say that the most cutthroat scorched earth campaign I’ve ever witnessed – I was not a part of it – but I ever witnessed was a local school board election in Nashville. It gets so personal and so dirty. You’re so right.

B

How close did your race into being, by the way, six points? Okay. So yeah, that’s a pretty good size when then that’s, that’s really impressive, um, I’m wondering, because now you’re in this position where, where you, you do have some influence over law and policy, what are some things that you hope to change or maybe that you have changed or you’re pushing for based on your experience, based on your experience with addiction and recovery and being incarcerated?

Bethany Hallam: Sure. Definitely the work I’m most proud of – I’m on the Allegheny County Jail oversight board. So five years ago I was in the Allegheny county jail and today I’m on the oversight board that is statutorily mandated to protect the people who are in that jail. That to me is the most rewarding part of pretty much anything I do.

Almost my entire term has been in the pandemic. I was sworn in, in January of 2020, and in March of 2020 world shut down. So I have had anything but a normal first term experience and so all of these grand ideas that I had going into office, I really have had to pivot to realize like people’s basic needs aren’t being met right now.

So since the beginning of the pandemic, I introduced the motion to the jail oversight board to put $50 on the commissary accounts of every single person in the jail. We have between 1600 and 2000 people in our jail at any given time and the county makes an enormous profit off of phone calls, off of commissary items, off of really just the people who are in the jail.

And they are incentivized to have a higher population in the jail because they make more money that way.

Chuck Corra: There are private companies that own the phone systems! 

Bethany Hallam: Yep. Global Tel-Links is the, is the conglomerate that I’ve been battling with, but everybody talks about private prisons, not realizing that all of our county jails and our state prisons are inherently private because they’re their profits being made off of them.

Phone calls, commissary, even the labor in our county jail. It is staffed by incarcerated people, right? They make the food in the kitchen, they serve the food, they clean the pods, they do the laundry, every aspect of it for not even a penny an hour. But they make nothing for having those jobs in that jail.

The county is profiting off of forced labor in our jails. So I introduced that motion at the very beginning of the pandemic. It barely passed, but it passed. So everybody got $50 back in October and then I introduced it every month since, so every month since the pandemic started, they’ve all gotten $50 a month.

Once there were tablets that were introduced to the jail so they coudl video chat their families, not reminding people of the cost of using these. The cost of talking to your loved ones on a tablets astronomical.

So I decided to introduce another motion and give them $50 a month on their tablet accounts as well. So since October, when the tablets are introduced and still to this day, every month, every single person in the jail gets $100. And I cannot tell you the response I’ve gotten from that from family members.

I get letters from the jail almost every single day to my house, to my office. They use interoffice mail, so they don’t even have to use postage because my office and the jail are both on the county mail system. They can send letters that way without any postage. Yes. It’s just, it’s the coolest thing ever knowing that it’s had an impact.

I also introduce a piece of legislation that hasn’t been voted on yet. It’s sitting in committee right now waiting for committee hearings but it’s to eliminate profits made off of people in the jail. So it’s, you know, the inevitable goal is free phone calls. That’s what we’re working towards.

But when I was doing research, trying to figure out how the county would pay for phone calls, I realized it wasn’t the cost of the phone calls that were the burden – It was the loss of all the profits that they were making off of 69% profits on phone calls alone. Yeah. A bag of Doritos in jail that cost us 50 cents at the convenience store costs people in jail, $3.

So, you know, just using my experience of my parents spent thousands of dollars in five and a half months that I was in jail. Thousands of dollars. Because they could. But other families aren’t so lucky – many lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Family members were having to choose between putting food on the table at home or putting money on the commissary accounts of their loved ones that were in jail. Some other pieces of legislation that I have introduced that trying to ban less-lethal weapons to your gas, rubber bullets – that came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests that were happening all across the country.

I watched my friends get shot in the face with rubber bullets in the street in front of me and get tear gas and horses attacking us and almost running over my back. I mean, there are just things that everything that I legislate every day has to do with something that either I’ve experienced that I’ve seen someone experience or that my constituents have told me about.

You know, one of the things I’m most proud of is I am on social media all day, every day, answering questions from constituents because they don’t know the formal methods on how to get in touch with an elected official, but they know if they tweet me with a question I’m going to be right there answering them, or they can slide into my DMS on Facebook and I’ll be there to help them out.

And so I say, you know, there’s just so much that I’m proud of that we’ve been working on, but I’ve realized that I can’t legislate anything by myself. Wouldn’t that be awesome? But I can’t. So I’ve pivoted to realizing that this year, half of the seats on our county council were up and so that’s what I’ve really been putting all my energy into now is electing people who are going to pass less-lethal force bills, who are going to pass a fracking ban for our county parks, who are going to pass budgetary amendments to increase access to our public transportation system. All the things I’ve been trying to do and get two, three votes for.

I realized that I’m never going to change the conservative members of counsel’s mind, but I can elect new help, elect new people to take them out, replace them who will vote with our community members at the forefront of their minds. So, yeah, 

Big John: Hey, that’s the best way to do it. If they’re, if they’re not going to agree, find somebody else that will, uh, Bethany, your story’s incredible.

Chuck Corra: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Last thing I’ll say – I do have to plug this – we have a friend and I want to see if you’ve heard of their place in Pittsburgh.

Pepperoni rolls is an important aspect of Appalachia and there’s a place called Rolling Pepperoni. I think it’s in the Stanton Heights neighborhood. And if you haven’t checked it out, it’s, it’s a really cool shop. I highly recommended it.  

Bethany Hallam: I actually have a food blog called watch Bethany eat and I have not been there. And I thought I’ve been to almost every restaurant in Allegheny county. So that is going on my list. As soon as we’re done here, 

Chuck Corra: I’m going to send you the link right now in the chat, so you can check it out.

And the, the, the woman who runs a cat is just incredible. So it’s a really cool place. I hope you check it out

Bethany Hallam: I love pepperoni rolls. So that made my day!

Chuck Corra: Yes. All right. Awesome. Thank you so much. This has been a really great conversation, really enjoyed it. And, um, and I just appreciate you sharing your story with us.

Bethany Hallam: Yeah. Thank you guys so much for having me and thank you for shining light on what’s going on in our country right now. And especially our region.

End of interview transcript

Chuck Corra: that was our interview with Bethany Hallam and officially capped off our series on opioids, John parting thoughts on the interview, on the series on 

Big John: anything again, I think the series was, was what it was. I think it was, uh, it was something that started as, uh, you know, a topic like opioids is difficult to cover.

It’s not the easiest thing to cover, right. Because there’s so many different perspectives, but I think that the five episodes give you kind of this story through the eyes of, you know, different people. And I think that that’s, what’s going to allow the series to live on well past us, Jack. 

Chuck Corra: I think I was really proud of the series.

Um, every part about it from the people that we got on to the message that we. Put across. And I think that it’s something that again, will be an important part of our contribution to this podcast. So we hope that you all enjoyed it.

Impossible Beef with Big John: Google

Finally he is the apothecary of Appalachia concocting, a dose of truth.

So strong. It will knock the bullshit right out of you. It’s impossible beef with big John.

Big John: First off before I go into my beef, I just want to say, I forgot to mention this. This series has also been. Weird for me, uh, in general, just thinking about, uh, uh, obviously growing up the way I did, I had a lot of hatred towards my biological father and hearing some of these perspectives.

I’m still not a fan of his right. But I can understand the addiction part of it. I can’t understand a lot of the other stuff, but I can understand, you know, maybe he was bad a little bit more than I’ve thought of before. Um, so it it’s been different for me. Uh, so I just want to throw that in. Anyway, when it comes to beef this week, Chuck, this happened actually while we were, uh, we were talking earlier because I had a different beef.

I w I had one all lined up. I was already, but then this one just, it just came into my lap, Chuck, and that is, I got beef with Google. I’m taking all the way. 

Chuck Corra: Here we go. All right. I’m only like the 10th largest company in the world. Why not? They are very important though, to RX success though. So we do like to be on Google.

Well, just putting that out there in the world. Yeah. 

Big John: All right. Just that being said, Google’s got some stuff they got 

Chuck Corra: to change. Will they do it 100%? 

Big John: So, uh, Chuck and I have been researching some ideas for the podcast, you know, growing it, uh, things that we want to do for you all. But in that, I just happened to be on Google image search, and I just happened to type in Appalachians.

Cause I just wanted to see. Right. And Chuck, you know that when you type in anything into the images, it’ll give you like searches that are relevant to it, right? Sure. Well, when you do that in Appalachia, a couple of things come up. West Virginia, Kentucky map, poor. Well, that is not, that is being poor is not a logic thing.

Yes. We have an, we have an economic, we have economic issues just like everywhere else. But to me, this, and you go and you look at the pictures, Chuck, it’s not just this, um, I, this idea of, of lack of money, it is these stereotypical Appalachians that they’re using that they’re continuing. So even thinking about this joke, a guy, you know, a little kid is doing a research project on Appalachia.

Let’s just say, right. It goes to Google image search, and they’re going to see that they’re going to click on that and then they’re going to be engrossed in those stereotypes again. And that really sucks, especially for the company that big. And then I, I redo it. The number one thing that comes up poverty.

So it’s constantly changing, but it’s still the same. You know, same idea every single time you, you Google Appalachia, Appalachians, those searches come up. And again, I’m not saying that we don’t have problems in Appalachia. What I am saying is that that doesn’t define Appalachia. Appalachia has so many other things that you could be Google imaging.

You know, they’re look at all of the beautiful places throughout this region. Why is that? Not one of the first things that comes up on Google images to me, Google’s got to fix this. The stereotypes are getting old. We’re in 2021, and everything else seems to be progressing except for this companies still continue to get away with this shit.

And if we don’t start talking about it more, and if we don’t start pushing back, that stereotype is never, ever going to be taken away. It’s always going to define this region. And that to me is such a mistake. It’s and it’s. It’s just so it’s such a low value for this region when there’s so much more 

Chuck Corra: to it.

Yeah. I guess I’m a little torn on this because there, there is a factual basis behind it. Uh, like Appalachia is, is without a doubt, factually like in more poverty than the rest of the country, like poverty rates are higher by a significant percentage. And so, um, so I think that merits attention now, whether or not like it defines the region, I don’t think it should, but I think it also should, should, um, uh, invite a critical lens to.

Why there is poverty. And so I think that may be the larger problem of like, if you just look at Appalachia as, oh, poverty, great. Like that does not the whole story. It’s the reasons why it’s the, it’s the reasons that people get into poverty and the reasons there’s systemic poverty in Appalachia. And a lot of it has to do with, with large corporations that are pillaging it, taking advantage of the people and leaving them with nothing.

And when that happens, it’s, it’s impossible to get out of it. So, I mean, I’m kind of with you, but I’m also like, it’s, it’s a difficult thing because it is a, it’s a huge problem 

Big John: without a doubt. It is, it is definitely a problem without a doubt, but I don’t know if you clicked on it. That’s where I started to have the issues, because like you said, we can talk about all the different, the systemic poverty, why it happens in Appalachia.

We could educate people on what’s happening in Appalachia. Google could definitely do that. Especially if they’re images, it’d be a lot easier, a lot easier for them. But instead, the ninth picture that comes up is a little kid smoking a cigarette, right. Which again, stereotypical Appalachia, there are people like, again, to me, this does not scream the real, uh, the real poverty, you know, the real reasons behind poverty.

It just, it allows people to look at one image and say, yeah, that’s why they’re poor every single time. And that bothers me because there’s so much more to it. And I know that it’s difficult in an image to define that, but again, You could easily, you start scrolling down and then you start getting some of the better pictures.

Why the hell are the other ones? 

Chuck Corra: Yeah, that seems like a different issue than, than poverty. It’s just the, cause. I mean, I don’t associate a kid smoking a cigarette with poverty. I there’s, I don’t know what the —— I associate that with, 

Big John: but right. But that’s, that’s what that’s, what’s on it. 

Chuck Corra: I don’t know. I mean, 

Big John: you know, and then you start looking and it’s a lot of like, you know, people, you know, it’s a lot of really old pictures, right?

Like, uh, JFK’s visit stuff like that, which I get it. Those are pretty big pictures, but like I said, you start scrolling down and you start to see things that are actually important to the region. Those should be at the top. 

Chuck Corra: No, I, I mean, I agree with you. Um, Sundar Pichai is welcome on this show, CEO of Google to talk about it.

Um, open invite. So. But yeah, I mean, look, we’ve types are coming off the ass everywhere. It’s just, you know, I mean, this is certainly one of them. Um, but I do think, uh, I think that, that the, the discussion of poverty in Appalachia very is a conversation that deserves nuance and, and more examination than just the Diane Sawyer thing.

Yeah. Cool. Well, yeah, but there we go. We live in a, we live in a world where we want to immediate gratification and if it can’t fit into a tweet, then it’s not worth reading. So that explains why something like that happens anyway. And we hope that you, uh, um, read a lot, including stuff we put on our website and, uh, we hope you enjoyed the show, um, like us on, on apple, uh, follow us on the social media.

Yes. Leave us a review, join our Patriot on and check out our store or they’ll be linked in the show notes. And thank you again, and thank you for listening to Appalachia, especially the series on opioids. We’ll talk to you again next week. Bye. Yes.

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