It may seem strange but, here’s how I look at my 24 years behind bars: Success.
Hear me out.
When I was convicted for my part in a marijuana drug conspiracy at the height of the war on drugs in the 1990s, there was no such thing as a second chance. I was given a life sentence. I quickly realized that mere survival in prison would not be enough for me. And this would mean a lot more discipline than I had been used to. I worried that if I didn’t get control and have my priorities right, I would become useless and shrink to the size of this environment. That would be failure.
Being a husband and parent meant I still had real-world responsibilities. Even though there was so very little I could do for my family, they would always be my priority.
I needed to figure out how to be satisfied with the small contribution that I could make as a father and a protector. My son Adam was in first grade and his sisters Katie and Ariel were in preschool when both their mother and I went to prison. We were so very fortunate to have a church that stepped up in a big way. It was the toughest time of my life. I had to work very hard on communication and patience. Twenty-four years in prison and as a family, we are still struggling with issues, but all of our children turned out great. Success.
Prison life has a very strong and negative undercurrent. If we don’t establish a routine we will be swept away by these negative currents, and none of the currents will lead to any successes. For me, programs have been the means to finding success. Like most first-time prisoners, I took all the best programs prison had to offer, and some of them twice. Bible study, meditation, parenting, “Correct Thinking,” drug counseling. The UNICOR Program, where I worked various jobs for nine years, was a very good program for several reasons. UNICOR had several powerful incentives and inmates learned a lot. It was also very popular for the pay scale it offered. (That program is slowly being phased out of the federal system. And after working nine years in UNICOR, I was made ineligible because I have a life sentence.)
For me, the best rehabilitative program is the Life Connections Programs (LCP). It’s a great way to connect life issues to spirituality and faith. I graduated from LCP in 2004. I have been doing the LCP orientation to recruit new students on a voluntary basis ever since and also initiated a LCP mentoring program. Success.
Seventeen years ago I started studying Hatha Yoga practice for my own physical therapy and after five years turned it into a class in the Recreation Department. I am also a student of Restorative Justice and have submitted several proposals to start a BOP course of my own, but to date none have been approved, even though a course like this would be very good for the purpose of rehabilitation for prisoners. And could also become very helpful to prisoners doing their time.
There’s a rule in prison that people on the outside may not know about: “Giving another inmate something of value.” There are so many prisoners who are in need of help in one manner or another. At the same time there is less and less provided by the institution. Helping others gain their GED is very common. Also helping new prisoners just coming in is common. The suicide watch I volunteered for years ago eventually became a service that we are now trained and compensated for. As a Vietnam War veteran I have supported fellow veterans to access programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated made available through the Veteran’s Administration. Success.
So I’ve figured out how to do my time, more or less by some measure of success. Underneath all of it, though, I can’t forget that I got a life sentence. I will never get square with that, that murderers and rapists are in here for less time.
But there’s a small glimmer of hope. Lately, I’ve been seeing something new, something beyond what prison programming has given me. That’s hope—hope for change.
Now, I see that more prisoners are starting to become informed. As they learn more about the law and talking to each other, they’re putting some faith in the process of change.
We all need to agree where to start. The repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws made retroactive would be a great start, but the opposition is fierce. Prosecutors say that mandatory minimum sentencing laws are tools they can’t do without. They are not “tools.” They are injustice.
We have a hope now that I have not seen in my 24 years behind bars. More prisoners are starting to become the reform they want to see. Prisoners are educating themselves, prisoners are becoming knowledgeable on pertinent legal matters and are applying that knowledge. Prisoners are actively utilizing the many “outside” support resources available to them to advocate for themselves. The era of prison reform is in session, and informed prisoners are finding their voices.