Another Life Begins in Prison

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I love sharing stories about people who used prison as a transformative experience. This is a great example. Jared Owens spent 18 years in federal prison for drug charges. During that time he honed his artistic skills by doing portraits and other art pieces for clients as his “hustle”.  He used the time in a positive way to develop skills he can use after release. It worked. He is now a renowned and respect artist in Charleston, SC and beyond. His work sells for thousands of dollars and he is even using his fame to help children and others

If you’re facing prison, I hope you will see it as an opportunity to build and/or hone a skill to improve your life and the lives of others. Whether it is art, business, culinary arts or some other interest, find something on which you can focus your time and energy.

 

Moving Hearts

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, so I wanted to add a piece on what we’ve been doing the last few months. While we don’t do the Paul Project full time, we do try to be available for people when they need us. Most recently, we’ve been working with a young man who is facing 15+ years in prison for distribution of child pornography. He accepts responsibility for his crime and understands that he will definitely be doing time. My heart breaks for him and his family as they face this reality. It also breaks for the children who were victimized and exploited to produce the porography that was collected, viewed and shared.

So the question begging to be asked is, does this young man “deserve” the mandatory minimum of 15+ years, or based on his acceptance, repentance and contrition, does he merit mercy? I know most folks will say, “throw the book at him!” But I would argue that it is better for him, society and the community to reduce his sentence.

1. He has accepted full responsibility and is participating in counseling to address the issues that led to his porn addiction and interest in child pornography.

2. He passed a polygraph test that included questions about any hands on offenses.

3. He has a strong support and accountability system that includes his parents, family, friends, pastors, counselors and others invested in his recovery.

4.  In addition to his time, he will be on the sex offender registry for at least 10 years and will likely have 10 years or more of supervision that includes semi-annual polygraph tests.

I hope you’ll pray for this young man, also named David, his family and the children who were exploited through the images that were involved

 

Dealing with violence

Screen Shot 2017-01-15 at 5.09.01 PMSadly, violence in prison is a reality. I was it first hand, but thankfully was never on the receiving end. I give all glory to God for this as I was in a number of situations where they could have easily resulted in my being injured. This article about a former Virginia delegate who was beaten in prison is a prime example of how, for whatever reason, inmates can become vulnerable to violence.

I have no idea why this particular gentleman was attacked, but in my 5 years in prison, I found there are a number of ways to decrease your risk of being on the receiving end of a lock in a sock. First, don’t stress about what is on TV or what seat you want to sit in. There is a hierarchy of who controls the TV and seats in a room. It is usually either the most powerful and/or the most senior inmate. I just decided, after a few close calls, to not even care what was on or who made the decision about what we watched.

Second, don’t owe anybody anything. Don’t borrow money, commissary, etc. for other inmates. There are exceptions once you’ve made a “friend” or two. But overall, it is best to never be indebted to anyone.

Three, be humble. This is probably the most difficult thing for me and most of us. But realizing that it isn’t about me, was an important step in learning to walk humbly. Most guys feel like all they have left is their pride and are willing to fight to keep it. There was nothing that important in prison that was worth fighting for.

Now there are times when you may need to protect yourself from a physical threat and I encourage you to be prepared for when that may happen. But you can do a lot to help reduce your risk of being a victim.

Madoff Corners the Hot Chocolate Market

madoff cocoaYes, it’s true, you can use Wall Street principles to hustle a living in prison. Bernie Madoff seems to be a prime example of this according to this article – http://abc7ny.com/news/report-bernie-madoff-capitalizing-off-of-hot-chocolate-in-prison/1703229/

While I don’t recommend this strategy as it will draw a lot of attention and derision toward you, it is one example of how inmates can take their situation and try to turn it into an opportunity. A lot of guys, including me, had a hustle in prison. For me, it was ironing guys uniforms. I would charge about $6-8/month to iron a guy’s uniforms up to 4 times. It was a fairly low-key hustle that didn’t require me to break any major rules and didn’t cost me a anything to maintain as the iron was provided by the prison. So I could make $30 or so a month to help me pay for my phone calls and commissary while helping guys to look a little neater. Plus, this helped fill my time in a productive way.

So if you have to choose a hustle, I wouldn’t suggest following Bernie’s path that is exploitative and could cause some guys to get want to strike out at you, I do suggest exploring opportunities that will help you make a little money and help others along the way.

Pell Grants Available to Prisoners?

safb_classroomWhile I don’t agree with a lot of what President Obama has done, his latest move to conduct a pilot project to test the possibility of giving Pell Grants to some inmates is a move in the right direction. Check out this article here for more information. For too long, our country has taken the position that warehousing prisoners rather rehabilitating them is the preferred approach. As someone who has seen the effects of this policy firsthand, I can honestly say it is a miserable failure. While there are some risks that come with offering grants and the like (some inmates seek to become better criminals, not better people), I do believe there are enough people in prison who truly want to become productive members of society to justify giving it a try.

I was actually able to take a college-level entrepreneurship certification course through Kent State University when I was at FCI Elkton. I was in the class with about 10 men and I have to say it was a worthwhile course that provided valuable information and education. We walked away with college credit. For some it was the first time they took classes since high school, where most didn’t even graduate.

I hope this pilot is just the first step in a shift toward training and rehabilitation and away from warehousing. Please encourage your congressional representatives to support these types of initiatives.

Prison Sentence is Not the End

Inmates taking part in training service dogs.

Inmates taking part in training service dogs.

After I was caught and was facing 8-10 years in prison, I can’t think of how many times I thought, “My life is over.” I have to admit, I thought about suicide, running away and just crawling up in a ball and hiding from the reality. As time passed and I got closer to my plea and my sentencing, I started to realize that this didn’t have to be the end of anything. It could be the beginning of something big for me, my wife and my family. That the man I was did not have to dictate the man I could be.

After about 6 weeks of severe depression and paralyzing stress, I went to see a pastor named Ricky Mill from Providence Baptist Church. In addition to telling me that God loved me no matter my crime and that I could be saved through grace and the blood of Jesus, he told me not to miss this opportunity to build a new life. He helped me see that if I use the time I have to get closer to God, to my wife and my family and serving others I can experience the love of Christ, not just today, but for eternity. How crazy is that?!

I used that advice as I entered prison and began my 6-year sentence in Federal prison. I met people who chose to use their time to be better criminals, or to sleep away their incarceration in hopes that it would pass more quickly. I also met inmates who chose to use the time to become better men. They sought out and took classes. They found vocational opportunities to learn a new trade like masonry, electrical, plumbing and solar. Like me, they chose to leave prison better than they entered it.

So, if you’re facing prison time. Now is the time to decide how you are going to do your time. Are you going to sleep it away, try to become  better criminal or will you use the time to become a better person?

“The Wire” gangster dies in Federal Prison

It is always sad for me to see someone pass away in prison because it is likely they went without any family or friends nearby. Reading about Nathan Barksdale’s death reminded me of this reality. I knew of a number of men who never left prison alive and each one never got to see their family one last time. That’s one of the sad realities of being in prison.

That said, though, those men who knew Christ, were never alone and seemed to be at peace as they faced the end of their life. I pray that for those of you who are entering prison and don’t have a relationship with Christ that you truly take the time to at least find out what that means and how you can get there. It will provide a level of peace for you and your family as you enter the unknown world of prison.

 

Prison Gardens Cultivate Seeds of Change

This article from the Christian Post reports on a resurgence of prison gardens. I always thought this would be a great idea and never understood why there weren’t classes around subject like aquaculture and horticulture where inmates could learn valuable skills that could be translated into a career upon release. Plus, growing food could be a way to cut costs and create healthier meals. I would have loved getting outside and working in the soil for a little while.

Prisons need to offer many more opportunities for inmates to learn a viable skill or trade. I did see some opportunities around welding, brick masonry, HVAC and cooking, but they could only accommodate a very small number of the guys who wanted to participate. These courses need to be expanded and there should be some incentive for inmates to take part.

 

Prison Bookies Love the Superbowl

Super_Bowl_logo.svgIt’s time for another Super Bowl. And yes, just like on the street, there are bookies in prison. This article shows a little bit of how things work, but it doesn’t talk about the dangers of gambling in prison. When people ask me about how I managed to get through five years of prison without any major physical altercations I tell them that 1. God protected me and 2. that I didn’t engage in any of the behaviors that tend to attract violence. There are a number of activities that put you at risk. I tell guys to avoid things like sexual activity, controlling the television, loaning and borrowing money and especially gambling. Next to television, the most violence I saw in prison was related to gambling. Whether it was playing cards for mackerals, or betting on sports via the ubiquitous weekly tickets put about many different bookies, inevitably there would be altercations around each week’s results.

So if you’re entering prison and thinking it may be fun to bet on a few games, I encourage you to think twice. It is definitely not worth it. Not only is it dangerous, but if you’re caught it could also result in an infraction, time in the hole, loss of privileges and worse.

 

From Con Artist to Sketch Artist

24-ballpoint-pen-portrait-2016-01-01-bk01_zThis article is a great example of how one man used his time in prison to learn and hone a skill that transferred to a viable vocation on the streets. His work is being shown in galleries and he is connected with churches and other organizations. It is critical to spend your time in prison cultivating some skill that can be used on the outside. While the choices are limited, there are opportunities to learn skills like welding, masonry, fitness consulting, graphic design and more.

I spent much of time teaching others. I taught marketing and public speaking to inmates at FCI Elkton. It was rewarding to see the men commit to something and learn something new. It is sad thinking society is giving up on these men. While not all prisoners are out to improve their lives, many are, and we shouldn’t paint them all with a broad brush.

I also took college-level courses during my prison time. I learned about entrepreneurship and business management. It was a blessing to be able to spend my time in that way.

If you are facing time, I encourage you to plan to use it for something positive.