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.

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.

Special Circumstance – Sex offenders in prison

There are a few groups who are more at risk than others in prison. Snitches and sex offenders rank at the bottom of the barrel. As my crime was a sex offense I can relate to the fear felt by those who hear the stories of the danger and abuse heaped on sexual offenders. While I didn’t experience any physical abuse, I was on the receiving end of verbal abuse. I chose to be honest about my crime and put my fate in God’s hands. For five years he protected me and kept me safe.

So if you are convicted of a sexual offense how can you prepare for prison? Most of the preparation is the same as anyone facing prison. But there are a few things you can do to help you and your family prepare.

1. Get help – If you are guilty, it is critical you reach out and get help. Work with a therapist and/or pastoral counselor to help you understand how you got to where you were and how to overcome the problem. My wife and I spent hundreds of hours in counseling over the 8 months prior to my incarceration. It was very expensive, but worth every penny. It will help you repair your relationships, overcome your addictions and create a plan for the future. It will also help you when you stand in front of the judge.

2. Decide early how you want to handle it when you are asked about your crime. And you will be asked. I chose early on to be honest. I started out trying to lie, but I couldn’t do it. Plus, with Google, anyone can find out the truth with a quick call to their family. For me, I believe my remorse was obvious and that by being honest I was setting a level of respect. But you have to do what you feel comfortable with. There are people who are harmed because of their crime, I won’t lie about that.

3. Create a circle of a few friends whom you trust. It isn’t easy to know who to trust in prison. But once you get a sense of people, you can start to create a circle of people who protect each other’s back. Plus, you are less of a target if you are not a loner. For me, I chose to be part of a Christian group and the church. This offered me both spiritual support and a sense of security.

So, are there risks to being a sex offender in prison? Yes. Can you survive? Yes. If you would like to discuss this in more detail you can contact us and we will gladly help you.

 

 

 

NY Times – Let Prisoners Take College Courses

safb_classroomThis is a nice op-ed piece from a prisoner in Attica who is advocating offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) to inmates through the television system in institutions. It makes perfect sense to me. Sadly, because of our society’s (faulty) mindset that results in warehousing of prisoners rather than offering opportunities to improve themselves and increase their chance of success, we are stuck in a revolving-door cycle of recidivism. I saw it firsthand. While not every inmate will take advantage of these services, those who do will more likely become productive members of society rather than just another statistic.

If you do end up in prison, there are a few opportunities to take classes, learn a trade, and improve your body, mind and spirit. Take advantage of them. Don’t waste the years sitting on your bunk, watching the Real Housewives and learning how to be a better criminal. It is incumbent on us to prove the money invested in these programs delivers results or we will lose them.

Prison phone calls under scrutiny

516e029dd5271.preview-300I’ve written about this issue before, but this NY Times piece made me think it is worthy of additional coverage. I can’t agree more that prison phone systems are a huge burden to prisoners and their families. I understand there is a cost involved in operating these systems, monitoring the calls and paying for equipment. But it just seems the cost to the prisoner and family is exorbitant. With VOIP technology and other innovations, making calls is cheaper than ever. And monitoring these calls should be getting simpler and more efficient as well as technology improves.

In my thinking, and without full knowledge, a fair price would be around five cents per minute with no connection fees. This would seem to be reasonable for the inmates and provide a profit for the providers. In the Federal system, if you don’t have a local number it will cost you 26 cents per minute. With 300 minutes, this comes to $78 per month. When the average pay for an inmate is about $20 month, you can see how much of a burden this can be. in county jails it is even more burdensome, costing as much as $1.50/minute plus a $2.00 connection fee.

So for now, if you are preparing to enter prison, I strongly suggest getting a local number via a cell phone provider if this is possible as it will save you thousands of dollars over the course of your sentence. And this is legal, at least in the Federal system. You just can’t legally use a Vonage-type service to set up a local call. Until the laws are changes, this is the best we can do to reduce the burden on our families.

Stats show prison education cuts recidivism

safb_classroomI ran across this article discussing issues around college education for inmates. There are some great stats that show it is a wise investment for states and non-profits, if their goal is to keep inmates from returning. I know from my experience, choosing to participate in these programs provided a way to not only use my time productively, but to also help me prepare for life after prison. I encourage anyone entering prison to be intentional about selecting the activities in which they participate and to do something to help them prepare for their release, because it will happen. Here are some of the more remarkable stats from the story:

The study found inmates who participated in correctional education, including remedial, vocational and post-secondary education, were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years, a 13 percentage point reduction in the risk of re-offending. 

That means for every dollar spent on correctional education, a state corrections department would save five dollars it would have spent on re-incarceration costs, according to the report.

Something Fishy – Whole Foods Gets Fish, Inmates Get Training

downloadI ran across this piece (article) about Whole Foods buying tilapia from a prison fish farm. The article slams the practice because the farm uses inmate labor who receive $1.50 and hour and have very few “rights”. First, $1.50 an hour in prison is pretty good. During my five years in Federal prison the MOST I received was around 25 cents an hour. There were guys making up to $1.50 an hour working in Unicor or the commissary, but that is the exception.

Second, I think the author of the article is being short-sighted as the inmates are receiving valuable training in a skill they may actually be able to use once they are released. I saw this every day with guys working in the print shop, landscaping and other skill jobs in prison. They may not be getting rich, but they were earning some money for the commissary or to send home and they were also learning a trade to help them succeed on the outside.

So I applaud Whole Foods for supporting the training of these inmates and I encourage the author to step back and consider the full picture before judging. Most inmates enter prison with very little education and few honest skills. Anything that helps them gain valuable training offers them a better chance and a reduced risk of recidivism.

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.