PEARISBURG — The Giles County Circuit Courtroom, usually a sedate, even somber place, last week transformed into a gym for defendants trying to reclaim their lives from drug addiction.
With rock music thumping, a rowing machine sliding and hissing, and jump ropes laid out beneath the wood-paneled walls, participants in the county’s Recovery Court sweated and hollered through an evening workout. Meant to build physical conditioning and reinforce lessons about accomplishment, the fitness session also helped reconnect a program that lost a certain face-to-face impact during two years of pandemic, said Judge Lee Harrell, who supervises the Recovery Court.
“This is kind of a way to bring us back,” Harrell said.
On Wednesday night, Harrell traded robes for shorts and a T-shirt. He and Chief Deputy Clerk Krystal Johnston raced defendants through a set of exercises. It was the second time that the Recovery Court held a workout in the upstairs courtroom — and the first was vigorous enough to dislodge tiles from the downstairs ceilings, the judge said.
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“Was anybody sore last week? What was sore?” Harrell called out as the exercises began.
“Everything,” groaned the Recovery Court participants.
Leading the session was Walter Midkiff, a former physical education teacher who is launching a new business, Recovery Fitness, that battles addiction with exercise and seeks to assist people in finding enjoyment and satisfaction without substances.
“Hopefully they can know, ‘I can feel good by myself without any of those things,’” Midkiff said.
The Recovery Court allows a small number of drug defendants to avoid prison and have their charges dismissed. They must meet certain requirements to qualify and be willing to undergo what is usually at least an 18-month regimen of rehabilitation, drug-testing, electronic monitoring, maintaining employment, and community service. After pleading guilty and agreeing there is enough evidence to convict them, defendants’ cases are transferred to the special court and they begin a program that includes meeting with a judge every other week to go over their progress.
Lori Trail, the drug court coordinator for New River Valley Community Services, said Friday that there are 76 people now participating in drug court programs in Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski and Floyd counties, and Radford. Since 2014, when the New River Valley’s first drug court was established in Pulaski County, the region has had 61 people graduate from the programs, Trail said.
According to the Virginia Supreme Court’s most recent annual report on drug courts, there were 61 such programs across Virginia in 2021 and 228 adult participants successfully graduated from them. The programs saved taxpayers almost $4.4 million from what it would have cost to prosecute these defendants through normal channels, the report said.
In the Roanoke Valley, drug courts were launched in 1995. The 23rd Judicial Circuit program, which includes Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem, has graduated more than 1,000 people, said Judge Charlie Dorsey, who supervises the program. There are about 60 participants now, said Terri Price, the coordinator for the Roanoke Valley program.
Dorsey and Price said Friday that the pandemic reduced the number of people in the Roanoke Valley program, mirroring statewide trends.
“We weren’t able to maintain testing and testing was a huge component of drug court,” Dorsey said.
For a time last year, Roanoke Valley courts suspended new placements in the drug programs, but they have since resumed, Price said.
At Wednesday’s session in Pearisburg, participants credited the Recovery Court with giving them a new outlook.
Tanya Martin, who said she had just over a month left before she graduated and had a drug possession charge dismissed, said she had shifted her focus from using methamphetamine and other substances to being a mother and holding a job.
“I got my life back,” Martin said.
Timothy Owens, who also was preparing to graduate next month and to put meth distribution and possession charges behind him, said he hoped to get a commercial driver’s license. In the meantime, though, he was getting his exercise both in Recovery Court and in his job with the county.
“I work out four days a week on the back of a trash truck,” Owens said, smiling.
Breathing hard after running through a set of exercises that Midkiff was recording for research, Owens called it “good medicine.” He echoed Midkiff’s thoughts on the brain chemicals that exercise can unlock.
“You feel just as good afterward when you work out as you would using drugs,” Owens said.
The exercise is a new addition to the Giles County program. Sessions are planned to occur three times per week, alternating between county administrative offices, the county Wellness Center and the courthouse. County Administrator Chris McKlarney joined in for the first week’s courthouse session.
On Wednesday, seven defendants were accompanied by Harrell and Johnston and several Recovery Court staffers and friends. Midkiff had participants time one another in a sequence that included rowing, squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and burpees, the latter an arduous combination of a leap, squat, plank and push-up.
Participants renamed the burpees as “Wal-Lees,” combining Midkiff and Harrell’s first names, noted Charlie Mullins, the recovery court coordinator for Giles County.
Harrell, who had spent much of the 45-minute session jumping rope and encouraging participants, was the last to tackle the timed routine. As the rest of the group gathered close to count repetitions, offer joking advice, and cheer, the judge hammered through. Panting as he finished the final “Wal-Lee,” Harrell turned in the fastest time of the night, a scant two seconds ahead of Johnston.
In a short written statement Thursday, Harrell called exercise “a critical, yet ignored, part of recovery.”
“We are also all enjoying the sense of comaraderie, accountability and teamwork,” the judge wrote.