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).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

We're Everywhere

My wife and I attend Threshold Church, one of these somewhat contemporary non-traditional evangelical churches that are popping up all over the country. We meet in the gym of a local YMCA.

My wife and I recently signed up for a "home group." Home groups -- which go by different names in different churches -- are regular meetings of a small group of members at the homes of those members. Some may think of them as simply Bible studies but they are really community groups rather than study groups.

The first meeting was at our house in early February. As part of this gathering, we agreed to share a little about our personal histories. There are four couples in our group and as chance would have it, I was last to share. My wife had already mentioned that we had some stressful years recently but she chose to leave the details to me.

After a few minutes of sharing the basic facts of my life history, I finally told everyone that I had spent 3 months in federal prison last year. At this point, that is not particularly a big dark secret, but you never know how someone is going to respond.

As it turns out, one of the women in our group -- "W" -- whose husband "C" was not present for this first meeing, suddenly lit up. For the next hour, she very animatedly told this harrowing tale that she and her husband had been going through for the last several years.

I can't give too many details, but apparently many years ago C had given up his young daughter for adoption to his ex-wife and her new husband and, as a result, did not pay child support. However, the adoption process was never formalized and, after his daughter turned 18, and through a set of circumstances I'm not totally clear on, the federal government decided he was a deadbeat dad because he had not paid child support for most of those 18 years.

At least, I think those are the bare facts :)

His first awareness that anything was amiss was when 30+ US Marshalls showed up at his door at 8a to arrest him, handcuffing him on the floor in front of their 2 young children (W had already left for work) and would have left the two children without supervision had a friend not intervened to care for them.

He ended up spending 10 days in the county jail (which acts as a Federal holdover facility) before being released and ultimately sentenced to 6 months home confinement as well as paying 18 years back child support (plus fines and legal fees). He is also now a federal felon for life (barring a presidential pardon).

(By the way, the only reason I can imagine sending 30+ US Marshalls to arrest an unsuspecting non-violent individual is a political PR stunt. The feds just wanted to show everyone how tough they were on deadbeat dads. Rather petty if you ask me.)

As you can imagine, C and W were rather traumatized by the whole experience.

Ironically, Jeff, the pastor of our church, knew both of our stories and had hoped to hook us up but, as he would say, God beat him to it. What are the chances that two federal felons in the same small church would happen to be matched up in the same small group. Then again, maybe our church is just teeming with felons and I just don't know it!

However, I immediately realized I had a problem. While C had completed his supervised release last November, I had not and, as I have described previously, I am not supposed to associate with federal felons. Again, as chance would have it, C and W do not live far from me so I asked if his probation officer was Chris B and W, again wide-eyed, said "Yes, how did you know?" Of course, it is because Chris is my PO. I then explained that I am not supposed to associate with C without permission of the Probation Office so I would have to call Chris and ask what the policy was.

I called Chris the next day. He of course knew who C was. He indicated that they do not usually like to discourage people from going to church, even if other felons attend, but that this was a unique situation (he laughed that he always gets the hard cases) that he would have to present to his superiors. Fortunately, he called back the next day and said that I could continue to attend the home group but I needed to note my "felonious association" on my monthly report. (This is actually for my own protection... so someone cannot later accuse me of violating my probation conditions.) C and I could not, however, meet for golf or lunch... the permission to associate was only within the context of the home group. Whatever.

There may of course be more to C's story than I know, although Chris indicated that it was the only case he knew of in which the feds went after someone for back child support, especially in a case given these facts. A few years ago, I would have dismissed this as a fluke, but I have heard SO many "fluky" stories over the last year that I have begun to view them as the rule, not the exception.

As we shared some of our mutual "rabbit hole" experiences, a couple other members seemed inordinately familiar with some of the legal processes we described. As it turns out, they have family members or close friends who have had their own bizarre run-ins with the law.

We're everywhere.

Before, people like me were invisible -- I don't think I knew anyone who had been to jail. Or, if I did, I certainly didn't talk about it with them. They were like cockroaches hidden in the crevices of a house, only coming out at night, and scurrying whenever the lights were turned on. You know they were there, but you never saw them.

In reality, that is a bad analogy, because they were in fact always all around me in plain sight, like those strange aliens in Men in Black -- I just wasn't trained to see them.

Now, it seems I run into them everywhere. And there is an immediate connection, a mutual awareness that the innocent world -- that red, white, and blue world of blind patriotism and faith in truth, justice, and the American Way -- we used to believe in doesn't exist any more than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny ever existed.

For some, that sober realization, that shattered faith, devolves into crippling bitterness, cynicism, and ultimately social withdrawl or, worse, social pathology. For others, hopefully including me, it is an opportunity to put away childish thoughts and share this new awareness with others, hopefully in a way that will provide comfort and strength to those who think they are alone while they face the full weight and power of the Federal Justice System and enlightenment to those who have not had the misfortune to experience that for themselves.

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a
child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." -- 1 Corinthians

1 comment:

Tea N. Crumpet said...

30 Federal agents to a man who was alone with his young children. . . 6 months house arrest. . . and ordered to pay 18 years in child support. I aside from the lack of intelligence that the government had, I hope that his ex wife gets karmic justice. It happens.

I met someone tonight who committed a white collar crime that was similar. He was huge with a community service group, did amazing presentations with the local schools and he will never be allowed to go into a school again (is that volunteer or even enter one?) "barring a presidential pardon." He didn't mean to do anything wrong!

Ugh. Is "barring a presidential pardon" inspeak with former inmates? If it isn't, I think you will make it one!

I am going to post at my blog that you are back and I hope word gets out again.