Another Life Begins in Prison

JaredOwensHeadShot

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.

 

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 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.

 

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.”

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.

Whitey Bulger: “My life was wasted…”

Whitey-Bulger_Most-Wanted_HD_768x432-16x9Even the most hardened criminals can have moments of insight, regret and remorse. There weren’t many harder criminals than mobster Whitey Bulger. He killed many men and lived a life of crime for decades. In this article from the Washington Post, Whitey responds to a letter from some teen girls who wrote him as part of a school project. In his response to their letter he candidly admits he wasted his life and spent if foolishly. I would guess this would be the honest response from many of us who spent time in prison for our actions. I know it my case I spent many days and nights in regret and remorse for all of those I harmed by my selfishness.

As you prepare for prison I strongly suggest righting as many wrongs as possible. To repent and turn away from your old behavior. For me, I truly began to understand that repentance means not just apologizing for my actions, but also turning away from them toward a new life. It was amazing how at peace I was once I asked for forgiveness and began to walk a new path. It didn’t minimize the pain I caused, but it helped me understand that I could move forward and use my time in prison to glorify God and to honor my wife and others with my actions. I hope you will do the same.

 

Speaking of Prison (Preparation)

paulprojectspeech

Speaking about the Paul Project at the Christian Legal Society monthly meeting.

We had a great opportunity to speak with a number of lawyers last Friday when the Paul Project spoke to the Raleigh Christian Legal Society. While it was a relatively small crowd, there was some great interest in our story and our ministry to provide encouragement, information and support to individuals and their families facing prison time. We had questions about safety in prison, how our marriage survived, what we can do to help others prepare for their prison sentence and how we came up with the idea for the ministry. We shared how God used the time to transform my life and our marriage.

Thanks to Rik Lovett and the Raleigh Christian Legal Society for the opportunity. We would love to speak with other organizations about the Paul Project prison preparation ministry. You can reach us at david@paulproject.org or at 919-602-9612.

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.)