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?

Email improves communications for Vermont prisoners

My wife and I during a visit at FCC Petersburg

My wife and I during a visit at FCC Petersburg

While I was serving my five years in Federal prison, the BOP rolled out an email system for prisoners. It allows inmates to correspond with friends and families on a more consistent basis. In Federal prison you get 300 minutes of phone calls per month, or about 10 minutes per day. While it was a blessing to be able to speak to my wife almost every day, it was difficult to deepen a relationship or deal with issues that cropped up. Plus, I was shipped off to FCI Elkton in Ohio which was about 9 hours away from home, so our visits were very limited.

It looks like states like Vermont and others are implementing a new email system for their inmates to help improve communications with family. This is a good step forward, but hopefully they will not use it to replace personal visits as some institutions have tried to do with video chat systems. Nothing can replace the personal and intimate moments inmates experience with their family during visits. This should never be replaced by technology.

What hospitals can teach us about prison recidivism

revolving_door If I had a nickel for every time I heard prison described as a revolving door I could buy a life-time supply of mackerels from the commissary. But sadly, the analogy is pretty solid. More than 75 percent of those released from prison will return within five years. This article from the Brookings Institute discusses how taking an approach similar to the way hospitals are compensated for re-admissions would quickly reduce recidivism in prisons.

The premise is that hospitals are penalized when a person is readmitted after receiving treatment for an illness. This incentivizes the hospital to ensure the patient receives the best possible care the first time and that there is a focus on quality of care rather than recurring revenue through multiple visits. If you translate this model to prisons, it would incentivize the system to truly focus on rehabilitation through education, training, counseling and other services rather than just focusing on warehousing bodies.

From my five-year experience, I did see a few opportunities offered, but not nearly enough to accommodate the demand. Not every prisoner wants to improve. In fact, some prefer prison to life on the streets. But that is the minority. I taught classes in public speaking and marketing while in prison and saw men who craved a chance to start over, to learn something and to become a truly productive citizen. But there are just not enough classes,  classrooms, teachers, books and other resources to accommodate this demand.

It would take not just an act of congress, but a huge sea change to go from warehousing to rehabilitation. It has to start with electing people who understand the issue and don’t just act on knee-jerk calls for being “tough on crime.”

Finding God in Prison

atlantic magazineFor some entering prison, it is the seminal experience in their life. It can be the opportunity for them to turn their life around and begin a path of renewal, or it can lead to a revolving door in and out of prison. For me, it was the former. I saw it, and still do, as a blessing. An opportunity to turn from a life of sin and addictions, to one focused on service and integrity. This article from the Atlantic about a prison chaplain in Oregon reminds me of that choice each prisoner must make as they begin their incarceration.

While I don’t agree with all of the chaplain’s statements, I do agree with her when she mentions that some prisoners will say, when they are being honest, that prison was a positive experience for them. This may sound counter-intuitive, but prison can be the life-changing force that shocks a person’s system and drives them to surrender their life to God, which ultimately means being re-born in Christ. I am so grateful He gave me that opportunity to spend five years focused on improving my life, getting closer to Him and becoming a better man, husband and neighbor.

Journal Entry – FCC Petersburg – 7/1/13

wreath(This post was written during my second summer at FCC Petersburg. There is no A/C at this prison, so it is extremely hot. But as you can tell by this post, there are some things more important than air conditioning.)

Summer is starting to kick in. We have 4 fans in our room and that helps. The loss of 60 pounds also makes it more bearable!! I just pray and thank God for all He gives me. I wouldn’t trade being here for the A/C at Elkton any day. We’re able to have nightly Bible study here, share our faith and be around a handful of Christian brothers!! What a blessing!

John S.’s dad is very sick. Hospice is with him and he is only expected to live another day. I’ve been praying with John and for his family. I’ve asked God for the ability to help him. Also makes me so grateful for the good health of my parents. John is doing better and he seems to be surrendering his father and his will to God. I am saddened by his loss and also joyful that his father is saved and will be joining Christ in heaven.

Note: John’s dad passed away the next day.

(I saw many men lose loved ones while they were in prison. Men lost parents, wives, brothers, sisters and children. It is probably one of the toughest times. As you prepare to enter prison, keep in mind that this is a possibility and prepare for it emotionally, financially and spiritually.)

Feeling free, inside and out

man-raising-handsI can’t explain the feeling I felt so often in prison, that I was more free behind that razor wire than I ever was on the outside. I had been a slave of some addiction from the time I was 9 years old. You name it, I’ve been dependent upon it. Drugs, pornography, food, sex, alcohol, work, fame, money, I tried everything I could think of to fill what Blaise Pascal called the “God-shaped hole in my heart.” But nothing worked, at least not for long.

But one day while I was at FCI Petersburg walking the track on the yard I realized that for the first time in my life I did not have an active addiction controlling my life. That finally, I was truly free. Chuck Colson said, “Prison is nothing compared to the bondage of sin.” I couldn’t agree more. That day as I looked out through the fence, I could honestly say that I felt a sense of peace and freedom I never felt on the outside. Thankfully, that feeling has persisted since I’ve been released.

Where did this peace come from? For me it came from surrendering my life and will to Jesus Christ. To admitting that Christ died for me and that through His blood I am saved from the bondage of all kinds of sin. That I no longer need to try to fill that God-shaped hole.

If you have not taken this step, I hope you will. If you have. Welcome to the family!!

Questions for the Paul Project

prisoners_watching_tvThe idea of starting the Paul Project was first sparked by our experiencing the fear of the unknown as we faced our own prison sentence. What fueled it was corresponding with a man facing a 10-year sentence. In a number of letters he sent me probably two dozen questions about what to expect in prison. As I responded to his questions he expressed his gratitude and let me know how helpful and comforting it was to have a clearer picture of what he might face. As I mentioned before, I’ll be answering his questions from time to time.

One question he had was around prison rules, both written and unwritten. I may post a few pages of one of the rules documents once I get it digitized. It would be an understatement to say that there are many written rules for each facility. And while the basic rules are the same, each compound does operate differently. There is very little orientation conducted so most of the time you’re going to be learning as you go. I asked a lot of questions and found guys who were willing to guide me through my first months. There are rules about counts, movement, contraband, drugs, alcohol, sexual activity, ID cards, mail, education, visiting, laundry, and much more.

Some unwritten rules relate to dealing with other inmates. For example, in a TV room seats are usually selected based on seniority. If someone has “claimed” a seat and you’re in it, unless you are willing to fight for it, you better move on. And unless you have a majority of guys behind you (or some juice) don’t even think about turning the channel. I’ve seen more fights over TV in prison than I have over anything else.

While there is a lot to learn when you get to prison, it is important to understand the written and unwritten rules as soon as possible. It will save you a lot of stress, and help you avoid potential physical threats and time in the hole.

The Super Bowl in Prison

Super_Bowl_logo.svgThe Superbowl attracted more that 111 million viewers in 2014. A few million of those 111 million people watching the big game were incarcerated in jail or prisons around the country. I watched 5 Super Bowls while serving my sentence and it was a welcome respite from the daily routine, but also a reminder of the separation from my family and friends.

Both at FCI Elkton and FCC Petersburg I was able to watch the Super Bowl without much incident. There is a lot of gambling that goes on around the game, but I avoided that kind of behavior along with the resulting conflicts and potential violence that go along with it. It is amazing how invested the guys would be in their selected team.

Super Bowl day usually brought a special meal of pizza and wings that we could take back to the unit to eat while we watch the game. We would also often make something special like a nacho bowl with which to celebrate.

I’m grateful we were able to watch the Super Bowl despite our imprisonment. It is the small things that provide some sense of connection with the outside world. It is definitely something to look forward to.

For Sale (Legally) in Federal Prison

I ran across this quirky tidbit in the Houston Chronicle on what various Federal prison commissaries offer for sale to their inmates. From my experience, the commissary was a welcome source of comfort and at times a taste of the outside. I was able to get everything from thermal underwear (much needed for the freezing winters in Elkton, Ohio) to a fan (much needed in Petersburg, Va. where there was no air conditioning). The downside is that it can get expensive and the pay in prison amounts to about 15 cents per hour.

Click here to view Houston Chronicle piece on prison commissary items

Below is a sample commissary list from FCC Petersburg Low where I spent 2 years.

petersburg commissary 2014 page1

petersburg commissary 2014 page2