Nathan Handy wanted to be a barber, the kind who works hair shows in sold-out convention halls. But the only haircuts he gives now are to his fellow inmates at the barbershop in Cook County Jail.

Dressed in a tan two-piece uniform with –˜DOC’ stamped on the back, Handy, 33, told his story from the visitor’s counter.

He can talk with visitors between an inch of glass on Saturdays and for no more than 30 minutes each. On a visit one June evening, Handy noticed dried blood on the countertop. “Someone must have gotten hurt,” he said with a smirk.

His story is familiar to those who work with recovering drug addicts. Even with the help of supportive programs, the journey often includes setbacks and detours through the criminal justice system.

Handy had no run-ins with the law growing up as the youngest of three children in a close, religious family in the West Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. But, as an adult, drug addiction led to arrests for robbery, theft, prostitution and disorderly conduct, he said.

Four months in Cook County’s Boot Camp program, an alternative to prison for repeat nonviolent offenders, were supposed to keep him out of jail. But cocaine and heroin brought him back a week later.

“With any kind of treatment program, especially with repeat offenders, you’re not going to have a good success rate –¦ because an addict is an addict, and addicts relapse,” said Cook County Associate Judge Lawrence P. Fox, who oversees Rehabilitative Alternative Probation, a “drug court” program where offenders get treatment and vocational training instead of prison.

“You can’t intellectualize recovery, and sometimes that’s where I fall short. You learn how to stay clean one day at a time,” said Handy, whose troubles have baffled his older brother Warren, a meter reader supervisor with ComEd.

“Nathan is a pretty intelligent guy,” said Warren, who has watched Nathan struggle with drug addiction for more than 10 years. “He knows that [drugs are] not the path for him”

Nathan is a calm person, a skilled barber and artist who loves to talk–”when he is clean, Warren said. “He’ll talk you to death if you give him an hour.”

But when Nathan is on drugs, he looks disheveled, and his conversation is abrupt, Warren said. “He has a little desperate look in his eyes like he hasn’t had any sleep in a couple of days.”

Warren said he is the last person in their family to keep an “open door” for Nathan. “Drugs have a lot more control than we do as a family in helping him overcome the issues he’s dealing with now.”

The troubles might have started when their father died. Warren was 9 years old and Nathan was 8, Warren said. “I think this really affected Nate. Being the baby, he was really close to my dad.”

The brothers were also close but when Warren graduated high school a year early and found work, Nathan began hanging out on the corner with some guys he knew in the neighborhood who introduced him to marijuana.

It didn’t stop there. His drug use progressed to cocaine and heroin.

But, in 1993, Handy married and had a son. He signed himself up for drug rehab, and stopped using drugs for three years. He was attending drug recovery meetings, but the meetings drove a wedge between Handy and his wife, he said.

“I spent all my quality time at the meetings instead of with her,” he said.

As a result, his life began to spin out of control. By April 1998, he and his wife separated, he couldn’t keep a job–”and he relapsed. In the next three years, Handy was arrested three times.

Depressed and suffering from low self-esteem, he was caught stealing film, cold medicine and candy from a newsstand in July 2001. He was sentenced to three years in prison for commercial burglary but was offered Cook County Boot Camp instead.

During his 18 weeks in boot camp, located at 2801 S. Rockwell Ave., Handy received drill instruction for marches and other basic training-style exercises. The program also includes anger management, reading, math and general equivalency diploma classes.

After graduation, case managers monitor graduates for eight months, making sure they find work, keep out of trouble and remain drug-free.

Boot camp went well. Handy stayed clean and was even chosen by his platoon members to speak at their graduation.

Instructors taught him to take control of his life, Handy said. “The way that you deal with and accept the things in your [life] will determine –¦ whether you’re a player in the game or the game is playing you.”

He was released Nov. 1, 2001. But within a week, he was back on drugs and back behind bars.

A few friends gave him about $275 to help out. But he blew all of his money on drugs and didn’t check in with his case manager, as graduates are required to do each day for 45 days.

“I went back to the old neighborhoods, the old area. [But] I wasn’t OK yet,” he said. “That was too much money to have in my hands.”

Incarcerating addicts rarely yields positive results, said Hector M. Feliciano, director of Chicago Outpatient for Gateway Foundation, a drug treatment facility.

“They need some sort of recovery home or halfway house, where they can get integrated back into society,” Feliciano said. “Some people need the residential care, where they can get out of their environment and in a place where they don’t have those influences.”

While Handy hoped to return to boot camp, Cook County Associate Judge Marcus R. Salone sent him to prison to complete his suspended three-year sentence.

During five months at the downstate Robinson Correctional Center, he spent most of his time reading in his bunk, volunteering at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and talking with inmates about recovery. “So they can get [an idea] of what they have to look forward to if they go out and do the same thing,” he said.

After his April 15 parole, Handy returned to Chicago, where he spent nights at a shelter. But on May 30, he was arrested for theft at Filene’s Basement, a department store at 830 N. Michigan Ave. Store security allegedly caught him on tape putting $377 worth of merchandise into his bag, including shorts and bottles of cologne.

Handy is in jail awaiting a July 3 arraignment and risks going back to prison.

As for his drug use, Handy has had enough. “I’m tired. It’s not fun anymore,” he said. “All that’s left is misery.”