From 2005-2007, Melissa Prechel was a dispatcher and jailer at the Redwood County Law Enforcement Center, which made it that much harder for her on December 13, 2011, when she was booked into that same jail for a drug-related offense.
From 2005-2007, Melissa Prechel was a dispatcher and jailer at the Redwood County Law Enforcement Center.
That made it that much harder for her on December 13, 2011, when Prechel was booked into that same jail for a drug-related offense.
"I wasn't selling the cocaine, but I arranged for someone to buy it in my house," said Prechel last week.
"It was the most humiliating, embarrassing day of my life. I was so disappointed in myself. I was respected there, and was being booked by officers I had worked with. It was the lowest point of my life."
Prechel's story begins when she was still a student in Redwood Valley High School, before she got pregnant and dropped out.
"I would have graduated in 2002," she said. "I had one baby when I was 16, and another when I was 18. I've worked since I was 15, and got my GED when I was 17."
The year after she would have graduated with her classmates, Prechel started online classes — working toward her goal of a four year degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology.
"That's been my goal since high school," she said.
Prechel had experimented with pot a few times before that, but never at work, and never with her kids around.
That changed on the Fourth of July weekend of 2009, when she witnessed her sister accidentally kill a child in an auto accident.
"After that, the anxiety, the nightmares ... I had used marijuana on and off since high school, but I was self-medicating. After that weekend, I got high daily. I tried cocaine, pills ... I wasn't myself."
She also did some low level pot selling to get rid of what she didn't smoke herself.
"No one ever intends to become an addict, but that day comes when you'll do the drug not because you want to, but just because it's there.
"I had no self control. When I did get high, all I'd do is wonder how to get more drugs," she said.
"Everything I did, I felt I had to be high to function — go to the store. I would get high as soon as I'd get up.
"The morning I was arrested, it was six in the morning. My son was in the shower, and I was downstairs getting high."
Prechel heard a knock at the door. She answered, expecting it to be a friend.
"I opened the door. The last thing I expected to see was five or six cops at my front door."
Redwood County was collaborating with several others on a series of coordinated drug raids. Twenty-one people were arrested for various drug-related offenses in one morning.
"My charge was conspiracy to commit controlled substance crime in the third degree," Prechel said.
It turns out that on Nov. 21, 2010, Prechel had allowed her house to be used as a meeting place between a cocaine dealer and an undercover officer.
"My whole house was surrounded by cops," she said. "They were going through my whole house."
When she was being booked into the jail she used to work at, "I'd never felt so low in my life. It was surreal. It didn't feel real. I'd never been in trouble in my life. Six years ago, I had been wearing that uniform. I'd lost all that trust, that respect"
After six days in jail Prechel was bailed out, and soon found herself facing 21 months in prison.
"I had no idea what drug court was," she admitted. The program was started in Redwood County as a way for non-violent offenders to avoid prison with a heavy 18-24 month regimen of treatment and counseling.
She was interviewed by a drug court counselor, then sat back to wait. Her court date was Jan. 19, 2012.
"I was a nervous wreck, I cried every day," she said. "I was preparing myself that whole month before my court date what I was going to say to my kids when I went to 21 months of prison.
"The morning of court, my public defender contacted me 10 minutes before I was to go in front of the judge. He said they'd allow me into drug court if I'd plead guilty to the third degree charge."
The condition was that Prechel's charge would be stayed and reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor — if she successfully completed the drug court regimen and probation.
She agreed. That same afternoon she made her first appearance in front of the judge for drug court.
Drug court is not designed to be easy.
"The first two phases, you go to court every Thursday, you have to go to outpatient treatment three nights a week, and to two Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week," she said.
"The whole time, you're checked by law enforcement. It's completely random — they show up at any hour, give you a breathalyzer test, and can search your whole house for drugs or paraphernalia.
"Every morning you have to call the drug test line," she said. "They tell you if you have to go in to the probation office that day to be tested. At the beginning, I had to go in three or four times a week.
"There's a curfew. For phase one, you have to be home from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m."
For her community service, Prechel painted rooms at Reede Gray Elementary School and at the Redwood Area Community Center.
As the 18-24 months of drug court drag on, the terms of the random searches and curfew gradually get easier.
However, she still plead guilty in court to a felony. If Prechel messed up once, if she tested positive for drugs once, or had a DWI, that 21 month prison sentence still hung over her head.
"There was huge pressure," she said. "At times I thought I couldn't do it. I was still a single mom raising two kids. The bar was held so high over me, it was draining and exhausting — but I knew my life depended on it. My kids' lives depended on it."
Part of drug court is keeping a daily journal.
"It's just between you and the judge. You can write about anything you want, your feelings and emotions. At each court appearance you'd exchange your journal with the judge, and he'd give you your journal from last week with his comments.
"When you first come into the system, you hate the system and you hate the judge. But as your mind clears, you realize they're helping you, supporting you. They're there to teach you accountability, but they never make you feel like a bad person. That gave me a huge motivation and encouragement."
Prechel graduated from drug court on August 15, 2013.
Since then, she's jumped into helping others through what she went through.
While going to school full-time, she's also getting involved in local recovery groups, sponsoring another drug court participant, and volunteering for the county's youth circle sentencing program.
"When I was arrested, the other officers said how hard it was to book me, to see me so down," Prechel said.
"Now they've come up and congratulated me. They say they can see the difference.
"When I was arrested, I was as low as you could be. I saw my mug shot on TV. Every newspaper around here wrote what we did, and who we were.
"I felt so worthless, but I never had someone come up and say, 'You're a felon, you're an addict.' When you go through the drug court program, you don't notice it on a daily basis, but other people notice the changes in your appearance, in your accountability.
"And when you're finished, it's easier to look back at where you were and see the progress.
"A lot of the time I never thought I'd make it, But I never thought I didn't want to be in drug court."