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).

Monday, March 31, 2008

The De-Stigmatization of Criminal History

This morning I had just finished my 7:30a workout when my trainer's next appointment arrived. He was not the normal 8:00a person but a substitute for a cancelled appointment. I have been working out here for 3 years and had never seen him before.

He saw me and questioned the meaning of my t-shirt (which I had acquired from the YMCA several years ago), which says:

I can go anywhere.
I can do anything.

Actually, that is what it used to say.

At some point during my prosecution, I thought a little editing was appropriate, given my new reality. I grabbed a magic market and scratched out the letters "any" from "anywhere" and "anything" and enscribed the word "no" next to them:

I can go any nowhere.
I can do any nothing.

This is the t-shirt I usually where when I work out.

As you can imagine, it invites questions, which is what happened this morning.

My trainer smiled when his new client asked what the meaning of my edits were.

I told him that last year I spent 3 months in federal prison. He asked what for. Then he asked where. "Was it a 'country club'"? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Then he talked about a friend who had spent 7 years in a federal prison in Pennsylvania for bank fraud and another friend who spent 3 days in a local county jail (much scarier!).

But what struck me most about the whole conversation was how utterly indifferent and casual he was about the whole thing as if what I had just told him about myself was a perfectly normal human experience. If anything, he was a little intrigued.

I get this a lot. There seems to be a lot of people out there who have had indirect (if not immediate) experiences with the criminal justice system and meeting someone else with a similar experience actually becomes a point of connection, not alienation.

Isn't that funny?

So many convicted criminals spend so much time and energy trying to hide their past, fearing the judgment of other people, when in fact..... NO ONE ELSE CARES!!!!

What alienates people is not another's past failure, but present self-pity and excessive shame. Everyone likes being around a person who has failed but picked himself up and moved on. Indeed many people will even admire such a person.

However, no one wants to be around someone stuck in the past, who can't move beyond their mistakes. Attitude is everything. If you have moved on, then so has everyone else. Most people have enough problems of their own to worry about your mistakes. (There is of course the occasional Pharisee who seems to have nothing better to do than build themselves up by tearing others down, but being a Pharisee takes more psychic time and energy than most can muster.)

Granted, if you keep making those mistakes over and over again, societal sympathy may begin to wear thin (re: John Daly). But for the average guy who got himself caught up in something a little bigger than he bargained for (which is the typical white collar scenario), that is not the issue.

So the moral of the story is that, in most cases, your criminal history is a non-issue for almost everyone else.... it has been de-stigmatized.

So take the scarlet letter off your chest and remember what Andy Dufresne said in Shawshank Redemption:

Get busy living or get busy dying.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What A DIfference a Year Makes

A year ago today, I was reporting to FPC Pensacola to serve my 3 month sentence (for details of the experience please read my last post of March/07 and first posts of April/07).

I figured this is an appropriate time to update everyone on what has happened since I last posted in November (!).

First, while I haven't posted anything, I continue to receive emails from readers. Below is a sampling (I can't post them all unfortunately for reasons of privacy):

"I am off to Morgantown WV in January 2008 for 18 months. Read all your content and have some Qs. generally all good info and confirms what i have been told, in part, by others. one Q: what are sample prices for things at the commissary? another: some have said "don't have visitors as it is too hard". Seems strange. Your take? was there a day or period when you "hit bottom" in camp? maybe birthday or anniversary, etc. Lastly i have some restitution issues. The order is for ~$240 million. Do not think i will get there at $0.17 per hour. Any experience on dealing the financial restitution group?"

"Thanks for your Blog Bill. It has been an encouragement to me. I'm a pastor facing 24 months possibly - and none of this has been easy. But your words have helped."

"[From someone who corresponded with me before reporting for 5 month sentence.] Just got home (January 18th)!!!!!! I was at FDC Miami, definitely not a camp! I am seeing my PO tomorrow. I have 5 months home confinement (with no monitoring). We’ll see how it goes. I read your latest blog. Glad things are going well."

"After many months of coming up empty handed searching for the candid, factual and current information I so desperately need to make sense out of this whole ordeal that I am going through I stumbled upon the wonderful information provided via your blog. I can not express you how grateful I am to you for sharing. My ordeal started in October 2006 by me confessing to my employer my indiscretions because I could no longer live with my guilt…to that of a FBI/IRS search November 2006….to a plea November 2007…to my sentencing at the end of this month. I am a first time, non-violent, white-collar offender, no criminal past looking at 46-57 months and scared out of my mind. Again, thank you for your insight and your willingness to share…I hope I can return to others what you have provided me." [I forwarded this to a lawyer friend... former federal prosecutor, now defense lawyer. He replied: "his story suggests that confession may be good for the soul, but not when the FBI is involved! A religious confessor/counsellor who can help decide the best restitution which doesn't destroy your life is lots better than blurting it out and going to prison."]

"I recently was charged with mail fraud which I didn't do but I'm obviously stuck. I am looking at 15-21 as well as you, with the option to lower the supposed LOSS. What i was wondering is the home incarceration given or chosen? I'm really stuck cause I do not live in the USA and not sure how that would work. This is horrible and having a public defender is not helping at all! Can't get any info... I saw your guide on how things go in steps and is helping me, are these normal?"

"From the perspective of my being a pastor, your final post on Grace is amazing."

"What are the psychological stages of being in prison? I have a friend who is in for 5 years over something that should have never gone to court. (Are there really programs for them to get out early based on no previous criminal history?) How do I write to build him up and make his time a little softer? He and I are both happily married (I'm a woman) and we have children the same ages. We're close in age. I just don't want a letter to put him in a blue mood-- what should I avoid doing? All the best to you dear Bill, your blog is a light to people on stormy seas!"

"I dropped my boyfriend off at FPC Pensacola yesterday. He was sentenced to a year and a day for selling steroids. We were able have his reporting date moved from December to March. It gave us lots of time to read and reread you and your wife's fantastic blog. The prison is six and a half hours away but we were so glad BOP sent him there. It was so much easier to go there because of all the information you and your wife took so much time to publish. It has made this terrible situation somewhat tolerable. We can not thank you enough."

"My husband will [soon] begin 46 months [in Pensacola] for "conspiracy to commit mail fraud." This place is 447 miles away, and we don't know what to expect. Is there anywhere we can get answers to some basic questions?"

Second, with respect to my friend Jerry (see post on Felonious Associations), the Probation Office turned down my request to continue to "associate" with him, which is unfortunate. It wasn't my PO's decision per se; he consulted with his superiors and they opposed it. I get the sense that they just don't like to make exceptions to their rules.... it complicates their job.

Unfortunately, this "rule" (actually it is a condition of supervised release that probationers cannot associate with other felons) is in many cases counterproductive. Oftentimes, when a man is released from prison, he re-enters a world that is unrecognizable and that does not recognize him. In some ways, it is like a man returning from war, except that war veterans are usually welcomed and respected (although not always!) when they return. Whether a veteran of prison or of war, the only people who understand his perspective are fellow veterans. However, unlike war veterans, prison veterans cannot form associations (there is no VFW equivalent for former inmates!). This deprives them of a significant potential source of comfort, strength, and even re-assimilation skills.

Former inmates are not so likely to judge them and might be more likely to provide re-assimilation assistance. Yet the government forbids this on the theory that associations with former felons will create a negative, rather than positive, influence. There is no doubt that this could be true. But it seems more likely to be true, especially for inmates who did not have a prior criminal history, that these associations would be positive, especially if they are fully disclosed (and therefore subject to oversight) to the Probation Office.

Just my opinion. Of course, I'm just a lowly federal felon and former inmate so I doubt they are going to give much weight to what I think.

Third, as for my personal life, my youngest daughter got married on December 14, which made for a positive, uplifting ending to 2007 after a difficult beginning. Life is pretty much back to normal. I have to file my monthly report and usually see my PO once a month. That is just a routine at this point. My supervised release period is 3 years, although there is a possibility it could be cut in half. That would be the end of the year.

When I tell my friends that it's been a year, they get this shocked look, like they can't believe it has been a year. This proves that prison time and normal time are not the same. Prison time moves at a glacial pace. Normal time flies by. I wonder if Einstein had a theory of relativity for that!

My wife and I have taken a few trips to Florida in the last several months. As usual, that requires permission from the Probation Office. I described this process earlier when we traveled to Florida back in October right after my home confinement finished. The permission is routine and my PO provides me with a Travel Permission form just in case I am stopped for some reason by a police officer and asked to explain why I am out of my district.

International travel is a different story. We have a trip planned to Europe in July and a Caribbean wedding cruise in October for a friend. International travel requires specific approval from the court (i.e. the judge). Currently, the Probation Office has my passport. The only way to get it back is if the judge allows it. My PO sent in all the appropriate paper work for approval several weeks ago but we haven't heard anything yet. It is somwhat complicated by the fact that my case is actually out of Philadelphia; Charlotte is just handling my case on behalf of Philadelphia. It is the Philadelphia Probation Office that has to forward the request to the judge. Given that the judge allowed international travel during my pre-trial release, we are not expecting a problem, but it is still the process I have to go through.

Put this in the "Tying Up Lose Ends" category. The government seized several computers from my home in July 2005 and imaged the hard drives. These computers contained a huge amount of personal information and I was not at all thrilled with the idea of the government having possession of this. Some of the data on these computers provided the basis for the government's case against me. After I was sentenced, we asked the government to destroy those images (the actual computers had already been returned to me) and any hard copies (except for any evidence that was used specifically in my case). They indicated that they would do that after one year. This apparently is based on the fact that I have one year to file a habeus corpus claim. I don't know exactly what that is but.... whatever, I figured I could wait another year.

February 13 was the one year anniversary of my sentence so we reminded the government of their agreement. On March 14, we received confirmation from the prosecutor that the images had been destroyed (i.e. reformatted) and all hard copies destroyed. While I may be a little paranoid, this was a big relief because it pretty much guarantees that no further prosecutions can arise out of any data on my computers. (Inmates are fond of the quote "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you!")

I hope to post a little more frequently than every 4 months! I have plenty of ideas... it is just a matter of committing the time to do it.