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?

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.

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.

Prisoners may get Pell grants for college

safb_classroomWhen I entered prison I sought to use the time to improve myself in body, mind and spirit. I spent a great deal of time and energy getting in shape physically, mentally and spiritually. I lost about 50 pounds, read thousands of books and dug deeper into the Bible and my relationship with Christ. I worked on becoming a better man, husband and member of society.  I do believe that those entering prison must make a choice, do they become a better person or a better criminal? One way to ensure they choose the former is to offer more opportunities to get an education beyond a GED. This article addresses the issue of offering Pell grants to prisoners.

I was blessed in that I was able to take advantage of an entrepreneurship certification  program offered by Kent State University while I was at FCI Elkton. I saw the men who took that course gain confidence in their ability to be more than a criminal. That they could actually build something for themselves, their children and the community.

I’ve always been fairly conservative politically. But my time in prison has helped me see that we must open doors, not close them. That we must take a few risks in order to create an atmosphere of hope and promise for the least of these. Of course there will be a few who abuse this privilege, but that is the case in the “free” world at universities across the country. This should not stop us.

 

Worship a welcome respite in prison

Power of Praise Band

Power of Praise Band

Caught this article on how worship time in prison was a welcome respite from the stress and strain of being and inmate. From my experience I certainly agree with this. I often looked forward to the hour or two on Sunday and the few times we had outside groups come in to worship with us. It was great to be in a positive atmosphere and spend time singing, praising and fellowshipping with other believers.

Some of my best memories are of listening to a band called the Power of Praise. They graciously visited us a few times a year at FCI Elkton. The chapel was usually packed and we sang along with them as they sang contemporary Christian songs and traditional hymns. It was especially emotional at Christmas when they would sing carols like O Holy Night and Silent Night. Man, it tore me up! We had other great groups come in as well. Like the Mennonite Church whose choir performed for us a few times each year. What great voices! So comforting and uplifting.

I encourage you to get involved in worship during your incarceration. It is a welcome respite from the daily struggle.

Prison Journal Entry – August 8, 2011

crampedapartmentThis is an entry from my journal during my time at FCI Elkton:

Quiet day. Our new cellie, Gene, moved into our cube. Amazing how one additional body makes an 8′ x 10′ cube feel like a shoe box. I offered to have him sit on my bed when he needs to. I know I hated when I was on the top bunk and never had a place to sit down. 

Lisa sounded good. Just a quick chat today. I love and miss her so much. Sad I may not see her again next year. But I am grateful for our time together. 

Personal space is at a minimum in prison. You have your bunk and a locker and that’s really it. There are very few places you can go for any kind of privacy. The bathroom stall is about as close as you get to being alone and then it doesn’t have a lock on it (if you happen to have one with a door). At FCC Petersburg we actually had our own chairs, which made it easier to find a place to sit. One thing I had to get use to was there is nothing soft in prison. We’re talking concrete, steel and plastic. Even the mattresses are plastic. I will never again take for granted upholstered furniture!!

Journal entry – 6/10/2011- Average day

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother entry from my prison journal from FCI Elkton:

Low-key day. Nothing too extraordinary. Feel pretty good. Grateful for everything God provides. I had good talk with Brian (friend). Very grateful for his friendship.

Haven’t talked to Lisa yet today.

I’ve been trying to avoid negative people. They seem to be everywhere here. So many people just don’t have Christ and are unhappy. I think they would be unhappy even if they weren’t in prison. They are missing the peace that with a relationship with God.

Praise God!!

Comment (2/19/15) – I had many days like this in prison. Especially after the first year or so. After a while I began to see that I can be content no matter my circumstance (Phil. 4:11). That I can use the time for something positive and that there are opportunities to help others and get out of my own head. Also, I appreciated having one or two friends with whom I could talk about things going on outside and in. I didn’t trust many people, but did find a couple on which I could depend.

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.

Journal Entry – May 18, 2011 – Lockdown

633643_lockdownThis is an excerpt from my prison journal. It should give you a taste of my experience while serving my six-year sentence. This post is about a lockdown caused by an inmate food strike while I was at FCI Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio.

5/18/11

2:00 pm – The inmates decided to begin a food strike, starting with a boycott of today’s lunch. It is mostly about some of the lights being kept on at night. I was one of about 20 people (out of 2000) who actually ate lunch. I was nervous, but it just seems so silly. I could get behind it if it were over some kind of abuse or something. It just seems like these guys are whining. It looks like we’re going to be locked down for now.

9:15 pm – Yep, we’ve been locked down for 7 hours or so and will likely stay that way for days. I just don’t get it. But if anything good (from the BOP) comes from it I will be surprised. I am spending time with the Bible, though. Praise God! I’m not about to call Lisa because of the lock down. (End of journal entry)

PS – The lockdown lasted about 4 days. We weren’t allowed to leave our unit for any reason. They turned off ice machines, limited showers, no TV, etc. I’ll post more from this episode in the future.