Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dead Man Walking

Most people think of a defendant's sentence only in terms of the amount of time he is incarcerated, when in fact the collateral aspects, both before and after prison, are oftentimes worse. I will comment on the pre-sentence experience first and then follow up with a separate post on the post-sentence experience.

I was fortunate. The FBI raided my home on July 21, 2005 (which I will eventually write about later). I was indicted in June, 2006, entered a plea in October, 2006, was sentenced in February 2007, and completed my sentence on June 28, 2007. While I still have supervised release to serve, for all practical purposes, my legal experience was less than 2 years. I can't emphasize enough how short that is compared to most federal defendants.

I met several guys in prison whose cases started in 2000-2001 and they did not begin their sentences until 2005 or later. That is, for these men, their cases dragged on for 4-5 years before they even began their incarceration. Trust me, their punishment started long before prison. Their suffering began the moment the feds started investigating them. (Criminal investigations are very intrusive.)

The average person has no idea how much the investigation, indictment, plea or trial, and sentencing process utterly drains a defendant and his family -- certainly emotionally and usually financially. (Johnnie Cochran used to "joke" that defendants are innocent until proven broke!) Their lives are literally in a state of suspended animation. I remember telling my pre-trial services (PTS) officer -- the pre-sentence equivalent of a probation officer -- that the process, not the sentence, is the punishment.

Even if a defendant is ultimately acquitted at trial, the experience is scarring. The government does not reimburse the legal fees of an acquitted defendant (yet the defendant, in the form of a fine and special assessment, is expected to partially reimburse the government for its expenses if convicted). Furthermore, the defendant's reputation is damaged. (Recall Raymond Donovan's, former Secretary of Labor under Reagan, famous quote after being acquitted of fraud charges: "Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?" There is none.)

One reader of this blog is awaiting sentencing and said: "Personally I find this time [pre-sentence] the worst - I have done everything I can do to minimize the sentence - but it's now out of my control - and its literally taking the life out of me - I am a 'dead man walking.'"

He asked how I dealt with my pre-sentencing time.

I decided to enter a plea at the end of September, 2006 -- 14 months after the government's raid of my home -- and was sentenced in February, 2007 so I had a 5 month period to get ready. On the whole, I handled it fine emotionally I think. The interview with probation in November for the pre-sentence investigative report (PSR or PSI) required a lot of my attention; otherwise, I left most of the work to my attorney (although, and this will come as no surprise, I am a high-maintenance client).

In January, the month before my hearing, I did talk to my personal lawyers about estate planning issues, including updating my will, setting up a family trust and preparing a power of attorney, and purchasing more life insurance (although I discovered, to my surprise, that for large policies, they will not insure a person facing prison time and probation until the sentence is completed).

Once I found out my sentence in February and was assigned a reporting date, I put in place plans for someone to operate my business while I was gone, which fortunately worked out well.

As for family and friends, most of them knew about the upcoming sentencing because they were asked to write letters to the judge to be included as part of our sentencing memorandum. After my sentencing, I followed up with them to let them know what happened and my response to the process and that I was planning to start a blog to document my experiences.

I believe that for the most part, family and friends took their cues from me. I know my wife and mother probably worried more than I realized but if your family believes you are holding up fine, then that gives them some reassurance that life will be ok.

I was assigned a self-surrender date of March 30, 6 weeks after my sentencing hearing. I scheduled a vacation in South Beach, Miami for the middle of March for 1 week with my wife and two daughters, which was very satisfying. I met with the leaders of my church who prayed for me. I started to get "antsy" about 2 weeks before reporting, as I recall. I was ready to get the show on the road, so to speak. I started this blog about a week before I reported, detailing my activities and emotions leading up to my self-surrender.

That pretty much summarizes my presentence "busy-ness." As for how I mentally and spiritually approached my sentence, I would refer you first to my early post on Attitude and Gratitude.

I am reluctant to advise other people facing prison how to deal with their pre-sentence time because my sentence was so short. I had the luxury of treating this as a sabbatical... at least, that was how I chose to view it. If I was facing several years, I would have had to definitely approach this differently. It is perhaps the difference in mindset between a sprinter and marathon runner. While I am sure I would have made the necessary adjustments, I am glad I didn't have to.

One of my roommates read Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, in which he chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. While FPC Pensacola would not compare to a German concentration camp, the book still has more meaning for an inmate than civilian and I would highly recommend it to anyone facing prison or in prison.

There is no doubt that the entire prison experience (including pre- and post-incarceration) is a form of suffering. I firmly believe that suffering is uniquely personal and incommenserable; that is, each person ultimately must walk the road alone (notwithstanding the comfort of friends and family) and should not attempt to compare his or her experience with that of another. It's not that one person's suffering, objectively speaking, is not greater than another's (each of us could probably come up with a similar ranking of the worst possible experiences that a human being could endure), but that attempting to compare one's suffering with another's makes it more difficult to deal with suffering productively; that is, meaningfully.

Each of us has a tendency to think that we have suffered more than someone else. This attitude is fraught with danger even if it is true in a particular case. It leads to self-pity, a sort of self righteouness in which we find our identity -- our "goodness" -- in our misery, as if other people -- the whole world for that matter! -- owe us because of how much we have suffered. While each of is probably willing to extend an empathetic hand to a person in a moment of crisis, we all know people for whom the self-pity act gets very old. The demand of self-pity is unreasonable because no one can ever give back what another has lost in their suffering. It is in the past. Suffering is not an entitlement to privilege but instead must become a motivation for service and it is in service that suffering finds its meaning.

"If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering." - Frankl in PBS interview

The reason this is true of course is because Life is Suffering - Buddha's First Noble Truth. But this is not unique to Buddhism. Jesus said, "In this world you have tribulation." (While Christianity and Buddhism agree on this basic observation, they depart dramatically on the causes and solutions to suffering but that is a topic for another day.)

It does not matter in a sense whether the suffering is self-imposed (i.e. a result of bad choices) or other-imposed (i.e. forces beyond your control -- injustice or accident). Ultimately, you are the one who has to deal with it, indeed, to embrace it. To quote Henri Nouwen (from my Attitude and Gratitude article):
To reclaim our history in its totality means that we no longer relate to our past as years in which only good times can be remembered, and bad times need to be forgotten, but as opportunities for an ongoing conversion of the heart. If we are to be truly ready to ask for a new task in the service of God, truly free to be sent into a new mission, our entire past, gathered into the spaciousness of the converted heart, must become the energy that moves us toward the future.

Ultimately, the way you deal with suffering is, at the risk of sounding glib, by faith. You must believe that this experience, however unpleasant, is your experience and is an opportunity. It is now part of who you are. It is your life, you don't get another and you don't get to live your life for another or through another. (It also help to believe that there will one day be a world without suffering.)

Quit worrying about others and what they think (in prison, they call this "doing your own time") and whether it is fair or not and start figuring out how to embrace it. I think you will find that the world will eventually embrace you back. Hey, if Tammy Faye, who died last week, can be remembered fondly by the Charlotte Observer (recall that the whole PTL scandal occurred in Charlotte's back yard... literally), that should give hope to anyone!

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