Leading By Example
Adam B. Clausen
Professor Tony Gaskew, Ph.D.
September 20, 2012
Abstract: This paper examines the habits of two men whom have successfully re-entered society and shared their stories with the world. They prove that the criminal justice system is not inescapable and give hope to all those whom are interested in following their footsteps. "Getting Out and Staying Out" along with "Law Man" are two valuable resources that should not be discarded or discredited. Both authors are part of a small minority of men whom have NOT returned to prison so their words have more merit than those still incarcerated.
The modern American Prison Penal System is intended solely to incarcerate and not to rehabilitate anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves entrapped within it. The concept of "crime and punishment" has greatly evolved over the centuries but arguably at no point in history have sentences handed down been as draconian as the ones commonly received in this day and age. The reason for this many likely stem from the public's view of only the "effects" of the punishment without witnessing the means by which they occurred. It was not so long ago that the punishment of the law was carrie out right before the eyes of the public so everyone was much more keenly aware of the consequences which resulted from breaking the law. Nowadays men and women are tossed behind walls and left to their own devices for years, and often decades, at a time and shown little concern for their future well-being. As long as criminals are safely separated from society, the current penal system has been successful in its job.
It is indisputable that black men comprise the majority of the prison population in the United Sates. However, the suggestions made by ex-offender Demico Booth in his book Getting Out and Staying Out are useful to not only men of color but to anyone who is sincere in their desire not to return to prison. Mr. Booth lays out a wide path for others to follow and even points to certain mistakes or troubles he encountered along the way. There are certain aspects of what he suggested that I may not completely agree with but I understand that I am not within his target audience. I believe that the men Booth was targeting were those that spend their days playing games and watching TV instead of exploring ways to better themselves and improve their chances of a successfully re-entering society once they are released. The majority of men in prison have no vision of what a positive future beyond prison might look like and Booth is able to provide that for them.
According to Booth, rehabilitation while inside prison requires a serious desire and dedication to change both yourself and your circumastances. Reading, specifically non-fiction, is his primary prescription for self improvement. He claims to have read over 500 books and copied the entire dictionary twice during his 12 years in prison, and although that's likely to be an exaggeration that certain people will use to assail his character, his recommendations remain sound. Reading undoubtedly accumulates knowledge and that knowledge can prove to be extremely powerful once it is accompanied by supporting action. Countless men and women have been released from prison and become productive members of society, but we're unlikely to ever hear about them. Unfortunately, the media is more drawn to the tragic and often sensational consequences of crime so, we frequently hear of the recidivists but rarely hear of the success stories as Booth and others.
Another former federal inmate by the name of Shon Hopwood recently published his success story under the fitting title of Law Man (Aug. 2012). Like Booth, he served a lengthy term in federal prison and began his own successful journey down the road to redemption while still on the inside. Neither man ever claimed that the path they had chosen was easy, but both achieved their goals and in doing so proved that the "revolving door" of the modern penal system could, in fact, be avoided. Each man has become a success in their own regard and deserves a great deal of credit and respect for their willingness to share their stories with the world. Booth's and Hopwood's stories should serve as inspiration to all of those men and women that aspire to lead happy, fulfilling and productive lives once they have finally been released from prison.
The suggestion that the criminal justice system is inescapable has been disproven by not only the published accounts but also the countless success stories which never made it into print. A successful re-entry into society means attaining a "normal" life like that which is enjoyed by most citizens every single day. That life does not need to be deemed extraordinary in order to be considered a success. Remaining outside of prison is the chief object and each day that continues to occur should be deemed a success. Fame and fortune are not true measures of success for anyone but rather are measures for one's own ego. Getting out and staying out is a simple and realistic goal for the undereducated and underprivileged majority that dominate our prisons today. Implying that the criminal justice system is a modern "caste" system, as Michelle Alexander contends in her book, "The New Jim Crow," suggests that there is no hope of escape. The truth of the matter is that there must have been specific laws broken in order to gain entrance into this system. Likewise, it requires certain actions, this time positive, to be released back out into society. Hopwood and Booth are proof that exodus is attainable with noble actions.
Conspiracy theories concerning government misconduct and manipulation of the masses will always exist and it remains imperative to always question the work of government so that it never grows too powerful in any regard. However, what is most desperately needed at theis juncture is a positive plan of action. Instead of criticizing those individuals brave enough to suggest such plans we all need to come together and make our own contribution to the effort. Words without actions become meaningless and the future will judge us by our ability, or inability to act in a meaningful way. The most powerful means by which to move the masses is to plead for those persons of influence to lead (the masses) by example. Speaking out against the current draconian sentencing schemes w hich hae
Who's Winning The War On Drugs?
The War On Drugs is responsible for reshaping the entire modern criminal justice system in America. Since the War began back in October 1982, state and federal prison populations have exploded, law enforcement budgets here ballooned and poor inner city communities have been let decimated. It's extremely difficult to accurately gauge the progress of this war, especially when the rate of drug possession and usage has remained steady throughout the country despite an incredible number of arrests. Current estimates put the number of casualties of the War On Drugs in excess of 31 million Americans. Few people can claim not to have been touched by the ongoing battle in some direct or attenuated manner. The media certainly has done its part to ensure that the public sees the heroics of law enforcement played out on the nightly news, providing that the war is at least being hard fought, if not won.
Since everyone seems to know about the War On Drugs, why then do the casualties continue to mount? One theory is that poor people believe the potential rewards of the drug trade simply outweigh the risk of getting caught and going to prison. Another theory is that those individuals who decide to enter into the drug trade don't understand the current and highly relevant "Rules Of The Game." Few motorists on the road today can tell you anything about "search and seizure" laws. All those individuals already in "the game" that are out on the roads with drugs in their possession should know their legal rights but likely do not. If they did, they would know the Supreme Court decided Terry v. Ohio back in 1968 and has since allowed law enforcement officers the right to "stop and frisk" but NOT the right to search without "consent." Individuals who are not involved in any sort of illegal activity might not appreciate the inconvenience of a "Terry" stop, but most view the encounter as just that, an inconvenience.
Once an officer explains to any law-abiding citizen that the search is to ensure the officer's personal safety, they generally understand and comply. The more frequently these encounters occur, the more acceptable the practice becomes amongst the masses. Since 9/11 the general public has become more and more desensitized to the regularity with which personal rights violations do occur in most public spaces. Each video or photo shown by the media of yet another criminal being lead away in handcuffs only reinforces the public's need to give up their personal rights in order to remain "safe."
Interstate and intrastate roadways have long been the key "pipelines" of concentration for law enforcement officers hoping to engage the enemy in the War On Drugs. Throughout the mid to late 1990's New Jersey State Prisons were overflowing with men whom had been arrested with drugs while traveling along the NJ Turnpike. Many of those men were from out of state and traveling back from New York City to their homes in other states. Law enforcement officers were frequently accused of racial profiling in those days, but nearly everyone of the accusations made against them came from motorists whom had been stopped, searched and found to be in possession of drugs. Despite the fact that the search itself may have been a violation of personal rights, the law abiding public remained relatively unmoved by the accusations due to the presumption of guilt placed on the motorist. The media's portrayal of these events strongly sided with state law enforcement, so public support continued for the War and prions remained overcrowded with drug offenders.
In her book, "The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander addresses not only the illegality of many pipeline case searches but also claims that certain sweeping search procedures often used are illegal and ineffective as well ("The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander, 2012. p.64). One of the Supreme Court cases she cites is Florida v. Bostick. The Court affirmed a cocaine trafficking conviction because they believed that the defendant had "consented" to the search while on board a Greyhound Bus. Obviously, defendant Bostick was unaware of certain "Rules Of The Game" that applied to him at the time and likewise should not have been sleeping while on the job. Alexander's claim that these sweeping search procedures (of buses) yielded few arrests simply is not true. To support her claim she gives the example of one case where "a sweep of one hundreds buses resulted in only seven arrests." However, that 7/10 arrests converts to a greater that one arrest out of every twenty buses that are searched. So if an officer is working an eight hour shift, and searches little more than two buses an hour then he or she is going to make at least one arrest during every, single working day. That equates to 20 arrests a month or 240 arrests each year. That officer could become solely responsible for the occupants of an entire prison within just a few short years. Those numbers are far from meager and inconsequential.
While attempting to discern who, if anyone, is really winning this War On Drugs it's imperative to consider the full magnitude and scope of the war. It is being waged well beyond our borders and has affected literally millions of lives worldwide. Our military has been enlisted to fight this war in distant countries throughout the Middle East such as Afghanistan by destroying poppy crops inside that country that could have eventually produced heroin, which was later transported to and sold within the United States, as a means to finance extremist Islamic terrorists intent on waging holy war against this country. The drug trade continues to thrive worldwide and that is largely the result of our consumption of illegal narcotics right here in the United States. We are the greatest consumers of these drugs and therefore must accept responsibility for many of the collateral adverse affects of the drug trade felt worldwide. Javier Sicilia's son was murdered i Mexico by hit men from the Gulf Cartel ("A Father's plea: End the war on drugs," Javier Sicilia, September 2012, CNN.com). Although this father laments the loss of his son, he is merely on of more than 60,000 people that have been killed siince Mexican President Felipe Calderone joined the Unites Sates War On Drugs six years ago. Sicilia claims that these deaths would not have occurred had Mexico and the United Sates pursued a bilateral agenda to decriminalize drugs and regulate tehir use. It's impossible to know what might have been, but it's indisputable at this stage of the game to discount the heavy casualties which have resulted on account of the War On Drugs. No on ecan claim to be "winning" this War On Drugs which has now be raging fo
Get Out and Stay Out
The criminal justice system in America is surprisingly easy to enter and incredibly difficult to escape...if you are a criminal. Our system was designed in this way to best ensure the public's safety. When an individual has violated the laws of this country the general public has a clear motive to monitor their actions for a brief period to ensure future compliance with those laws. A consistently high rate of recidivism supports this practice and reinforces the assertion that all criminals need to be monitored until they prove they no longer need to be.
When a person is released from prison they are likely to be filled with a sense of euphoria. Inevitably the sobering reality of daily living in the world outside of prison comes crashing down around them. Any person whom has served time in prison is expected to know "The Rules Of The Game." Their accumulated experiences, coupled with the stories they heard from others in prison, leaves them no excuse for not knowing what their role is within "The Game."
"Criminal associations" are a clear violation of the terms of the parole and probation but what happens when a parolee lives in a crime infested neighborhood where there is seemingly no way to entirely avoid the criminal element of that environment? The answer is that it becomes the parolee's responsibility to know who all of the players are in the Game and to avoid them at all costs if they hope to succeed. Maintaining a constant awareness of one's environment is an essential life skill that should have been honed in prison for self preservation and can now be utilized out in the world. Demico Booth wisely suggests formulating a "positive plan of action" as a means of avoiding these types of troublesome situations once released. Adhering to that plan, even during times of great hardship, and recalling the discomforts of prison, can greatly reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Also, deciding to make "family" a top priority in one's life is an intelligent way to remain focused on those things that truly matter the most.
The only way a parolee ends up back in prison is if they break that law or violate the conditions of their supervised release. Knowing the tactics employed by law enforcement is an absolute essential element of survival for anyone wrapped up in"The Game," including all recent parolees. The strategies and methods used by officers to combat the War On Drugs are constantly evolving but can all be traced to what is known as the "Enterprise Theory." For over sixty years, law enforcement has relied upon the "Enterprise Theory" as a means to dismantle criminal organizations both large and small. Officers focus their attention on "gutting the ground floor" of an organization in order to bring the next tier above them down. By eliminating those lower levels of the organization, law enforcement is able to not only disrupt business but also to bring themselves closer to the top tier criminals leading the organization. Certain criminal enterprises, such as drug distribution and sales enterprises, are clearly more susceptible to this technique due to the addictive nature of their product, which causes people to act more unscrupulously.
Hollywood movies, rap lyrics and music videos all contribute to the glamorization of the Drug Game. The risk for rewards and inevitable consequences are all equally embellished to paint a picture that does not accurately depict reality. The implication is that the potential rewards will all be worth it no matter how briefly they may last. This pervasive mentality has been perpetuated throughout pop-cutlure and made it incredibly easy for law enforcement officers to remove legions of aspiring young criminals from the streets. Once they are taken into custody, their cooperation with law enforcement officers and prosecutors is almost a foregone conclusion. Cooperating has actually become so commonplace that it is no longer holds the stigma, nor fear of retribution, that it once did. Clearly, "The Rules Of The Game" have dramatically changed and the boundaries are not neatly defined as they once were.
Nowadays prosecutors unquestionably wield the most power within the criminal justice system. If a person has committed a crime it is the prosecutor who will then likely determine how much of their life must be traded for repayment. Judges have been basically relegated to the role of "referee" during most court proceedings. Since the prosecutor retains the right to determine which charges a criminal defendant will face, he or she is able to hold a near infinite amount of time over each defendant's head. Their job is simply to attain as many criminal convictions as possible and they most often attempt to do so by whatever means necessary. Frequently, they can be heard boasting to the media about their "conviction rate" and the number of total years they have managed to accumulate against criminal defendants. This attitude does not represent the true (theoretical) interests of justice.
As the Rules Of The Game have changed out in the street, so have the practices of prosecutors across the nation. Anyone attempting to play by the Old Rules Of The Game is at a severe disadvantage and likely to be made into an example. Those few criminal defendants who dare not to cooperate with prosecutors can expect to receive astonishingly harsh treatment. However, these situations so rarely occur in this day and age that when they do hardly anyone even takes notice. American pop-culture icons have repeatedly proved that it is now socially acceptable to destroy the lives of everyone around you if it is necessary to avoid a lengthy prison term.
Traditional media sources tend to target a more mature audience, but their message is not that dissimilar from one found in pop-culture. Much attention has been paid to the recent mass murder which occurred in Aurora, Colorado and what might have been done to avoid it.
Tighter laws, harsher penalties and the expanded use of law enforcement techniques have all been suggested as a means to prevent another similar event in the future. This dangerous expansion of the criminal justice system could have dire consequences for every citizen if left unchecked. It has boldly been suggested that a law "that would make it easier to treat and institutionalize violent paranoid-schizophrenics without their permission" (How The Gun Won" by Joe Klein, Time. August 6, 2012) might have prevented Senator Giffords' shooting in Arizona. The media is attempting to manipulate the general public and win their support for a greatly expanded criminal justice system, which could be used to ensnare citizens who have never even broken a law. No mater how dire the situation my seem, recall the months following 9/11; if such an expansion of the law were permitted to occur, the facade of "law and order" along with the "exit door" that currently awaits parolees at the end of supervised release would cease to exist.
At times our current criminal justice system may appear largely ineffective, especially when viewed from a distance. However, the view changes once you begin looking from the Inside Out. Down on the ground, deep in the trenches of the War On Drugs, it gets "grimy." Not everyone is prepared to deal with the dirty reality of what they find and fail to realize that the grime can be washed away over time. This system, as it currently stands, may be easy to enter but there is still a way to get out and stay out without compromising your core principals and beliefs. Remaining down in those dirty, filthy trenches of the War remains and individual choice. Any person who instead chooses to comply with the laws and conditions of their parole thus becomes responsible for a recused rate of recidivism and likewise a decreased dependency upon the criminal justice system. Until the recidivism rate declines, the media will remain in a position to suggest that more laws and greater law enforcement is necessary. In order to change the current Rules Of The Game and halt any further expansion of the criminal justice system, those individuals currently entangled in the system have to make every effort to remove themselves from it. The future will be determined by their ACTIONS above all else.
Knowledge Is Powerless Without Action
Studying the history of any era or situation allows us the opportunity to make better informed decisions whenever similar circumstances arise in the future. However, once we find ourselves already entangled within a situation where injustice and inequality have become the norm then it becomes or responsibility to take action. Those actions will then be judged by all those who study our history. Without action, all of the knowledge that a person possesses becomes powerless and meaningless. It is absolutely imperative that we act when the time arrives. So our focus then must shift at some point from simply accumulating knowledge toward knowing when to act in response to that knowledge.
No matter what a person's involvement is within the American criminal justice system, today they have a moral responsibility to try and improve its effectiveness. The system was intended to protect society from all those persons who had proven that they were unable to abide by the law. Their temporary removal from society was itself seen as sufficient punishment. As the severity of punishment has increased over time, primarily with the inclusion of stiff mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, so too has the number of recidivists returning to prison each year. The obvious difficulty in rejoining society after having been long and far removed from it is an issue that clearly needs to be addressed with greater consideration and resources. If the actual punishment was intended to be only that initial time served in prison, then why is it that so many men and women end up serving so much more additional time inside?
"The Federal Bureau Of Prisons 2020 long-range capacity plan projects continued growth in federal prison population from fiscal years 2013 through 2020 with system wide overcrowding exceeding 45 percent through 2018: (Federal Legal Center quoting the Government Accounting Office's study on prison population on September 14, 2012). The United States leads the world in the rate at which we incarcerate our popultion. Most of those men and women are casualties of the War On Drugs, which continues to rage to this very day. The Federal Bureau Of Prisons has clearly stated their plans for continued expansion despite the contradictory claims of commitment to rehabilitative programs that effectively reduce the rate of recidivism. Plans to expand prisons instead of community release centers, for which there are ample qualified candidates, erodes the fragile confidence of all those involved with the current re-entry effort.
Black men comprise the majority of men in prison and have clearly been hit hardest in this War On Drugs. However, the reason for this disparity may be less sinister than many scholars suggest. Logistically speaking, urban areas are much easier for law enforcement to target due primarily to the density of the population but also due to the proximity of urban structures. Conversely, a group of law enforcement officers venturing out into a suburban or rural area have far more ground to cover in much less camouflage to hide their surreptitious activities. The urban War On Drugs is quite simply the easiest one to fight when faced with a system that is results driven. Drugs are prevalent wherever you go within this country so finding them is never difficult Law enforcement simply concentrates their efforts in those ares where they are able to make the most arrests. Apprehension is their only concern. After that the charges become a matter of the court system, where another issue entirely arises.
The crack to cocaine sentencing disparity that previously existed was undisputedly excessive. However, the current 18 to 1 ration is seemingly much ore accurate but many sentencing reform advocates claim that it is still too excessive. Since I have not found any statistics to support the new ratio, I feel compelled to interject my opinion which is the result of my own indirect experiences with both drugs. My attorney and close friend had a serious drug addiction that he battled for many years. Frequently, I would receive calls from his law partner or secretary inquiring about his whereabouts after he had missed a court appearance. On many occasions, I had to track him down and physically remove him, along with whatever was left of his belongings, from a known North Philly crack house. The scene was generally the same no matter where I found him. What I witnessed inside of those places was deterrent enough to prevent me from ever trying crack cocaine myself. However, this same attorney friend was capable of remaining relatively sane whenever he used powder cocaine in my presence. Since I sold and consumed powder cocaine for a lengthy period of time, I have ample experience with the effects of the drug. Never once did I see anyone exhibit the same erratic behaviors while on powder cocaine that I frequently witnessed when someone was smoking crack. In my opinion, a clear distinction should be made between the two drugs. Crack cocaine is much more physically and emotionally devastating than powder cocaine, so I understand why there is a sentencing disparity and have to agree that there should in fact be one. The severity of that disparity however remains open to debate.
The matter of who uses these drugs is also open to debate. Law enforcement is admittedly biased in their decision about who they choose to actively investigate and apprehend and those tactics warrant analysis. In my opinion, there is a very logical reason why the stereotypical "white frat boy" that Alexander refers to on page 132 of her book, "The New Jim Crow" is not a target of law enforcement. College students in general, regardless of their race, are all permitted certain privileges as a result of their anticipated future status within society. College is generally an accepted time of "experimentation" for those young adults who are likely to become the community and business leaders of tomorrow. Drugs are common on most college campuses but law enforcement chooses to ignore these obvious infractions of the law because society takes no issues with their "experimental" activity. Conversely, society is frequently outraged by stories of innocent victims caught in the crossfire of gun battles related to inner city drug turf wars. if violence, addiction and death were as prevalent on our college campuses today as they are in our inner cities then the War On Drugs would be raging there as well.
Statistics never tell the entire story. If numbers are too closely relied upon and over examined, then the human element in this war is greatly diminished. The War On Drugs has torn many urban communities apart and left millions of men and women incarcerated for decades instead of years. Until this point most efforts to improve rehabilitative services, and thus reduce the rate of recidivism, have been largely ineffective. The criminal justice system desperately needs an influx of progressive young men and women knowledgeable with the history of the system whom also have a sincere desire to make things better. Anyone that has such knowledge also has the power to affect change regardless of their personal circumstances. Whether a person finds themselves on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out they already know that "knowledge is powerless without action."
Acceptance Of Responsibility
Statistics clearly demonstrate that inmates who are serving life sentences are the least likely to recidivate. "Lifers" comprise less than one percent of the 2.3 million inmates currently incarcerated across the United States. It is unknown precisely why these men and women are so much more successful than their contemporaries when given the opportunity to return to society, but a few things can be inferred from other pertinent statistics. First, any person who has successfully completed a life sentence will have inevitably surpassed 40 years of age. Current statistics indicate that the rate of recidivism for both men and women drops dramatically beyond the age of forty. Secondly, most Lifers were convicted of crime where a loss of life occurred. Due to the finality of those crimes it can be safely assumed that they are much more likely to have seriously considered the cause and effect nature of their actions. That sort of introspective analysis, in turn, is likely to result in the eventual acceptance of responsibility for all their individual actions both direct and indirect. The weight of that responsibility undoubtedly serves to influence all of their future actions.
No matter how large or small the duration of incarceration a persona may face, that term will greatly affect a persona's outlook on the future. If that future seems too distant and incomprehensible, then that person must find some purpose for their current state of existence in order to maintain a sense of relevancy and self-worth. Conversely, all those men and women who are serving terms that they perceive to be relatively brief and inconsequential will simply mark off each day on their calendar in a perpetual countdown to their release. Therefore, it is literally impossible to calculate how any specific term of incarceration might ultimately affect an individual's thought process and subsequent actions. However, when a life sentence is imposed, that individual is consequently forced to confront themselves and the resulting damage of their actions - possibly, probably for the first time. Accepting responsibility for the impact of those actions on family, friends and associates is a difficult but necessary part of the cathartic process. All lifers must confront these situations at some point in the time simply because they have no other choice. Everyone else serving less time is denied that impetus to confront the full scope of consequences for their actions and remains unmoved toward positive change.
Occasionally, statistics themselves can provide the necessary impetus for change. Consider the fact that the current conviction rate in the Federal Court system is 97 percent. Nearly all of those convictions are the result of plea bargains with federal proecutors. Almost half of those people who agreed to plea bargains later received a sentence that was below the recommended sentencing guideline range. The overwhelming majority, 66 percent, of those personals receiving sentences below the guideline range received that reduced sentence on account of the "substantial assistance" that they provided to prosecutors. It's safe to say that those persons who provided such assistance did so as a matter of self preservation and not due to some sudden crisis of conscience. This practice has led to a deeply flawed system that is now predicated upon opportunistic criminals seeking greatly reduced sentences at any cost. It is not merely the system that is flawed, but the character of all those who have chosen to sacrifice their principals and reputations is also deeply flawed. When the punishment is diminished as a reward for compromised principles, it draws into question any perceived good that might have resulted from it. A simple acceptance of responsibility for one's actions and the completion of any subsequent punishment will unquestionably preserve the character and integrity of that rare individual. Any person with a strong sense of personal integrity is not only going to take responsibility for their own actions but he or she will also want to influence others due to the same.
The rate of recidivism has long remained steady at a staggering 70 percent. Popular culture has, thus far, only served to encourage young men and women to live outside the law with no consideration of the consequences to their actions. Mob figure Sammy "The Bull" Gravanno admitted to murdering numerous people but served only a few years in prison because he cooperated with the government. Rap artist and reality TV show actor T.I. was arrested while in possession of numerous automatic weapons, with silencers, and received only one year in federal prison instead of a life sentence. As long as young people continue to believe that there is an escape valve which will allow them to avoid punishment for their actions, they will not be rightfully deterred from entering into a life of crime. Those young adults unfortunate enough to eventually be caught and convinced will inevitably cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency and thus not even be deterred from committing future crimes. These young men and women have no need o desire to look inward upon themselves and discover how deeply flawed their character has become. As a result they are likely to recidivate and help sustain that previously noted 70 percent mark.
An effective means of combating the existing negative pop culture would be to focus greater attention upon the 30th percentile of the prison population that is least likely to recidivate. Those men and women who are serious about altering their habits and improving their lives have the ability to create an atmosphere conducive to change. Science has already proven that something as simple as a smile is contagious. If 30 percent of the inmate population were to find themselves having a reason to frequently smile, then the remaining 70 percent of the population is likely to be encouraged to smile as well. Not everyone will be susceptible to such an atmosphere of change but the underlying culture will create an improved likelihood that others will also embrace change. When dealing with individuals who have not had many reasons to smile, a little compassion and kindness can make a world of a difference.
The most influential inmates in nearly every prison are lifers. Despite the fact that they comprise such a small percentage of the population (in most prisons) they wield an incredible amount of influence amongst their peers, simply because of their sentences. Time should not dictate respect nor admiration, but inexplicably in prison it does. As a result, most lifers learn to embrace that leadership role and with it accept the accompanying responsibility of that position. They realize that they have the ability to inspire and positively direct all those inmates that are around them. When prison administrators want to reach the general population and affect systemic change it is wise for them to utilize the leadership of those lifers. Giving these men a sense of purpose and empowering them to help others is an invaluable resource that should be utilized at every opportunity. Lifers, along with members of the favored 30 percent, can and will create a culture of change that is likely to reduce the rate of recidivism.
"Changing a strongly held belief has little to do with actual facts." This opening quote from a recent article in the New York Times captured my attention first and then my imagination. The assertion, which was supported by multiple studies, is that we tend to side with people who share our identity regardless of the facts. Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than the microcosm found within a prison. Inmates gravitate toward other inmates of similar beliefs and allow themselves to be defined by the group. What is most dangerous about this phenomenon is how the group can disregard the "facts" when they do not coincide with their beliefs, thus creating a blatantly distorted reality. Conversely, this same group dynamic can be extremely powerful and positive when used to promote an agenda that benefits everyone, but those circumstances are relatively rare and need to be capitalized upon whenever they do occur.
Every group has either a designated leader or certain members who clearly wield more influence than the other memers. Identifying those leaders and targeting a specific message to them improves the likelihood of the group's receptivity to that message. Leaders have the ability to move the masses toward either a positive or a negative action. The most horrific atrocities committed throughout history were perpetrated by people commanded by extremely charismatic leaders, Hitler being the most obvious example. He managed to move the minds of an entire nation and although their actions now seem incomprehensible in retrospect that merely proves how powerfully influential the perceived identity of any group can ultimately become.
Julius Caesar is a prime example of how positive leadership can influence a nation on such a scale as to having a lasting impact upon all of human history. Ancient Rome's prosperity and appreciation for the arts were born out of his leadership, and monuments celebrating the success of their glorious society have withstood the ravages of time and war. Caesar empowered other leaders within his nation to rise up and speak for the people they represented in the Roman Senate, a predecessor to our current democratic government here in the United States. He was greatly loved and admired by the masses and that ultimately lead to his assassination. The voice of one, or a select few, cannot be underestimated in its potential to move the minds of the masses.
Leadership is both a privilege and responsibility. When the minds of the masses are under the influence of a leader it is his or her moral responsibility to act with their best interests in mind, even when it does not serve his or hoer own personal interests or desires. The words and actions of any leader will be scrutinized by their opposition and emulated by their faithful following. Whenever an opportunity arises to further the education of any leader it should be seized upon because, through his or her intellectual advancement, the masses will also be elevated.
Leaders should all strive to become adept teachers. As Henry Adam famously stated, "A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Unfortunately, some people are unable to remove their own sense of ego and insecurity to fail to assume their rightful role as either a leader of techer. Intelligence may be a powerful tool and education has the potential to be the great equalizer, but only when both are fully embraced. Men and women in prison are often reluctant to embrace and cultivate their intelligence because they will inevitably be ridiculed by their peers. In prison whenever a person of color is able to articulate their thoughts in an intelligent manner without the use of curses or slang, they are accused of sounding too "white." The full derogatory remark is usually something to the effect of, "You sound like you're white!" As a result, black and brown men frequently hide their intelligence from their peers and white men tend to adjust their normal speech to better assimilate to their environment. Accordingly, accepting the role of either a teacher or a leader inside prison is often a greater responsibility than most men and women are capable of handling.
A common characteristic among men in prison is their prior ability to provide for everyone who was around them on the outside. No matter if their crime involved a seemingly small amount of drugs, a violent act, or a wide reaching case of fraud, these men were the ones that family members, friends and associates frequently turned to in times of distress. These men were in a position to be of assistance to nearly all those around them and thus they enjoyed that sense of power and influence. Once inside prison that influence on the outside quickly began to dissipate and they realized that everyone around them had become so conditioned to their support that they were no longer able to fend for themselves, let alone anyone else. It is an exceptionally frustrating experience that often leads to feelings of depression and isolation. These men have the potential to become effective leaders and teachers on the inside if they are provided with the right tools and guidance. The characteristics which made them effective leaders within their circles of influence on the outside are the same that can now be used to promote a greater common good.
Criminals enjoy a certain type of lifestyle that can be more difficult to avoid than any type of drug or alcohol. When people choose to live outside the law there isa certain mystique that attracts not only the attention but the quiet admiration of even the most straight laced citizen. Their money and possessions may attract the initial attention but it's the blatant disregard and flaunting of the law that draws lasting admiration and affection. American history is full of outlaws who have been emulated and revered by the masses simply because they were non-conformists.
After prison many criminals find it difficult to stay out of the limelight and rejoin the masses after having experienced that sort of attention, despite the negative consequences they already endured. Clearly, there is a great hypocrisy present when our society glamorizes its criminals but then seeks to incarcerate them for the remainder of their lives when they recidivate. If inmates can be convinced that the same attention and admiration will be afforded to them when they choose to pursue a more positive and productive path within the confines of the law, it will not take long to begin moving the minds of many. As those minds are then moved the culture will itself begin to change and long held beliefs will slowly start to fade away. Intelligence an then, once again, come into vogue and education will be embraced as the great equalizer by all.
New York Times Magazine, "How To Move A Mind: Changing a strongly held belief has little to do with actual facts." August 19, 2012
The World Book Encyclopedia, 2004, "Hitler, Adolf" pages 264-268
The World Book Encyclopedia, 2004, "Caesar, Julius" pages 12-13
Not So Cruel Intentions
Abstract: This paper seeks to cross the generational divide that currently exists between the young people of today and all previous generations. Due to their overexposure to the negative aspects of the world as seen through modern media sources they have become desensitized to the harsh realities of the "real world." Television and music are the mediums offered for analysis herein and the author makes the case that reality television shows currently on air are by far the most corruptive influence in history. The younger generation is in desperate need of redirection but this author offers neither sage advice nor any substantial solutions to the current overwhelming fascination with high drama media, at least not at this juncture.
American pop-culture is more influential today than at any pervious time in history. Unfortunately, the message that is being broadcast to the rest of the world is not generally one of hope and inspiration. The violence and vulgarity that has become so prevalent across all sources of words and actions have yet to be determined, but it is difficult to imagine any possible future benefit at this time.
Every generation aspires to exceed the expectations and accomplishments of the previous one. As a result, some generational gaps inevitably do occur and certain core principles and values are not equally expressed across that gap. Nowhere does the current disparity become more glaringly obvious than in statements made by various American pop-culture icons portraying characters in music, movies and television shows. To the world, it would appear that these entertainers represent the view of the masses in this country, and subsequently their personal statements then become "our statements" to a world-wide audience. Few of these individuals consider the gravity or potential impact of their statements but, even if they did, it is unlikely their ego-driven tongues could refrain from spewing inflammatory remarks for very long, since they have learned that even negative attention is better than no attention at all.
The American media frequently throws fuel onto the fire lit by pop-stars and in doing so plays to the masses' unquenchable desire for high drama. Nowadays, the majority of Americans are choosing to watch reality shows of all types at an alarming rate. Basketball Wives, Mob Wives, The Flavor Of Love, Jersey Shore and Bad Girls Club all portray young people in America as violent, alcoholic, irresponsible, misogynistic and ignorant. The networks seem to promote these negative stereotypes and encourage the "actors" to create as much drama as possible, merely to increase the network's ratings despite the human cose. Ultimately, reality television is big business for all of the people involved and their job is simply to "entertain" the mases. This practice has resulted in the desensitization of an entire younger generation who now believes this type of behavior to be "normal." Young people today are not able to realize the serious nature of certain words, phrases and actions that have somehow become a part of their own vernaclar. The N-Word and the W-Word are both incendiary terms that can, and often do, invoke heated replies from anyone familiar with the origins and true meanings of those words. Reality television shows have distorted true reality and left and entire younger generation ill-prepared for whatever awaits them in the future, but they are not the only pop-culture media vehicles to blame for our present sad state of cultural affairs.
Music has always been an exceptionally powerful medium despite its singular assault on the senses. Entire generations have frequently been moved to action by certain lyrics that perfectly expressed the sentiment of the masses. Marvin Gaye sang about "mothers crying, brothers dying, father there's no need to escalate" on his famous track "What's Going On" while trying to ease some of the tensions that arose during the civil rights era. Then there was Bob Marley and The Wailers speaking directly to the history of slavery and encouraging all their listeners to "free their minds."
"O' Pirates yes they rob I. Sold I to the merchant ships, minutes after they took I from the bottomless pit but my hands were made strong by the hands of the Almighty. We're forwarding this generation triumphantly.......Emancipate yourselves from enter slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds." (Bob Marley and The Wailers Redemption Song off of the Legend album)
Rage Against The Machine is another relatively well known group that has been extremely vocal about a variety of social injustices that have occurred in recent decades. The group has been very outspoken in their support of convicted Philadelphia "cop-killer" Mumia Abu-Jamal, much to the ire of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police as well as family members of the victim Officer Daniel Faulkner. Their song "Testify" is all about Abu-Jamal's crime/conviction and their lyrics have inspired international support for him. Without the group's steady support throughout the years, his case wold have likely disappeared into relative obscurity long ago.
Another popular band that has attempted to tackle social injustices in recent years is Creed. Their song "One" discusses the sometimes polarizing effects of "Affirmative Action" and encourages listeners to strive for social/racial unity, which was clearly the original intent of the law. Their message is far out of step with most modern pop-culture song lyrics heard on the radio today. Unfortunately, pop-music has become much more homogenized and devoid of any strong social commentary, or attempt to positively influence, the younger generation.
Pop-culture and music now commonly express artists' infatuation with personal gain and notoriety instead of attempting to promote any sort of strong social values and personal principles.Fast money, cars and women are a recurring theme of little substance or longevity that clearly resonates with the younger generation. Without a dramatic act of violence or vulgarity, as seen on the aforementioned reality television shows, it is nearly impossible to capture and hold their attention. This young generation could greatly benefit themselves by talking a lesson from the ender generations - but that's unlikely to occur.
As pop-culture artists row a little odder and, hopefully a little wiser, their voices may become reality magnified within the mainstream. In recent years these men and women have been able to project a positive message into the collective consciousness and have helped to shape future events. Currently, there is a powerful social movement gaining momentum within the state of California that seeks to abolish the death peanlity. Rocker Jackson Browne, actor Ed Asner and Netflix CEO, Billionaire Reed Hastings have all loudly expressed their support for Proposition 34 which would effectively convert all of the states' death sentences to life without parole if it's succesful. They have contributed their time, money and reputations to help affect a positive social change. These artists' influence is indisputable but, likewise, so is the influence of all aforementioned reality television show actors.
We are now living in an era of sensory overload and must choose our influences wisely. The younger generation should be encouraged at every opportunity to identify and promote their own principles and beliefs so that the rest of the world does not mistake their current high drama infatuation with genuine narcissism and nihilism. Only by dramatically altering course and no longer promoting such negativity can we begin to make the case that our, society's, intentions were never as cold, cruel or calloused as they may have appeared to be. It was all scripted for the sake of "entertainment" that somehow got confused with reality. American pop-culture should instead reflect all of the positive attributes of this younger generation, but that is not sometime we are likely to see anytime soon, since the media would not benefit financially from it.
Abstract: This paper is a brief analysis of the choice and effect relationship experienced by all men living within crime infested meighborhoods. The decisions that they make in response to the opportunities that are available to them inside prison, at the halfway house or on supervised release will determine the quality of the lives they lead. This author has experienced every aspect of the criminal justice system first hand and knows all about the possibilities and pitfalls awaiting these men at every step of their journey. They system is not inescapable; successful reentry is available to any man who chooses wisely.
Ask a question and the mind immediately begins searching for an answer. Most of the questions that we encounter each day are self-generated, right within our own minds. We are constantly inquiring within, calculating the risks and rewards and making decisions based on all the information that flows through our minds. Ultimately, whatever decisions we make are entirely of our own choosing.
All of the men currently sitting inside prison made a conscious decision to break the law. Some men may have had more options than others but the fact remains that they still always had a choice. Frequently the argument is made that those men living within crime infested neighborhoods "have few, if any, realistic options, and therefore "dealing drugs can be an irresistible temptation," but that is not a valid justification for choosing to break the law and risk becoming incarcerated. Even in the worst neighborhoods there are "working men and women" who get up and go to work each day with the honest intention of earning a legitimate wage to support their families. These workers are not entirely invisible, but they certainly do not command the same attention as the men standing out on the corner each day, center stage, flashing their new clothes, nice cars and rolls of cash. Everyone in the neighborhood knows from experience that all of that "flash" is destined to disappear just as quickly as the cops can slap on the cuffs and cart them off to jail. The people that see the game played every single day cannot claim ignorance of the rules and consequences, for they are well understood by everyone living in the neighborhood.
Prison is an unfortunate inevitability for anyone wrapped up in the drug game, yet there is never a shortage of potential players awaiting an opportunity to get into the game. As quickly as the men disappear form their neighborhoods, they are replaced by those men returning home. Many of them act as if nothing has changed (within them) and this sends the wrong message to the young men who have not yet been fully indoctrinated into the game. These men had an opportunity to formulate a plan for their future while they were away, but instead, they chose to simply bide their time and plot their return back to the very same neighborhood where they were arrested.
Every man comes to a prison a criminal but he does not have to return home the same way. There are plenty of existing opportunities on the inside that few men choose to take advantage of while they are there. Instead, most men choose to spend their days in front of the television, at the card table, or out on the ball court instead of reading or studying about something that might better prepare them for the future. Those men, both young and old, that are required to attend GED classes often exhibit minimal effort or interest in the lessons they should be learning. Vocational training too, is offered in most prisons and can provide realistic, legitimate future opportunities for employment. The reality is that all those men who choose not to utilize the opportunities that have been made available to them are instead choosing to remain criminals, and therefore are repeatedly subjected to the conditions they claim to abhor.
Men such as Duane Henry and Demico Boothe, along with countless other successful parolees, have proven that there are legitimate opportunities for men returning home from prison. None of them ever claimed that their path to eventual success was an "easy" route but they did prove that it was in fact possible, and that should have been enough. They are the ones who should be admired and praised back in their neighborhoods, but inevitably and inexplicably it is the drug dealers that still command center stage.
Life after a criminal conviction will never be "easy," but it is possible to live within the boundaries of the law. If a man has done nothing to improve his prospects for future employment while he was in prison, then he may still have some time remaining while in the half way house to find a job and save some money. Once he is finally released from prison, or the half way house, and returns home to his old neighborhood, he will have many more decisions to make each day, and he must choose wisely.
Those men who have decided that they are going to break the vicious cycle of recidivism and not return to prison, and who are in fact sincere in their efforts, will find that there are people and resources available to them. Now, more than ever before, parole and probation officers have access to funding and services that are specifically intended to aid in the re-entry process. It is up to the men whether or not they choose to take advantage of these opportunities.
The restrictions that are generally placed upon men returning home from prison are often described as "hardships," when, in actuality, they are merely inconvenience. Drug testing, employment verification, and home inspections are simply a means of ensuring compliance with rules and laws that parolees have obviously disregarded in the past. Monitoring parolees and probationers for a limited amount of time is not unreasonable as long as there is a set termination date. Anyone that plans to conform to the laws of society and aspires to succeed in all aspects of their life is not going to be seriously concerned with any of these temporary restrictions. It is the individuals who are planning to continue using drugs and engaging in criminal activities that need to be concerned with these public safety measures, and most often they are the ones lodging the most vehement objections to whatever temporary restrictions they may be facing.
Living within the boundaries of the law is not difficult. Choosing to remain free, at home with your family, should not be a difficult decision to make, but prisoners are selfish and we place our own needs before those of our loved ones. Permanently removing ourselves from the web we have woven is an attainable goal for every single one of us. All we must do is choose wisely and live intentionally in order to enjoy the long, happy, healthy and productive lives that we deserve. How difficult could that possibly be?
Nosce Te Ipsum
Abstract: This paper is a brief reflection and encapsulation of the events and circumstances that have influenced me to become the man I am today. I can sincerely say that I "know thyself" better today than ever before, and that, I believe, is a very good beginning.
(Inside Out Paper Originally Posted 2/21/13)
There is an inscription deeply inscribed into the stone at the Delphi which has resonated throughout the ages. "Nosce Te Ipsum" succinctly instructs each person to "know thyself" and it has inspired philosophers to ponder the phrase for centrues. Unfortunately, introspection is not as noble a pursuit today as it once was due to the current "results driven" nature of the world in which we live. Few people believe they possess the time to seriously consider such a dictum nowadays and most are probably correct in that assumption. There are, however, those of us who have chosen to lead a certain type of life where long stretches of quiet contemplation are still quite common. Monks occasionally retreat to their monasteries and, similarly, we prisoners escape to the solitude of our cells.
The nearly 17 years I have spent in prison have taught me a great deal about myself, not all of it positive. Honestly, much of it is embarrassing and difficult to openly admit to anyone. My past is filled with stories of squandered opportunities and unfulfilled potential, punctuated by glimpses of athletic greatness. Admitting that I needed to return to prison in order to finally discover and truly know myself was painful. I wish that I could take back the past and re-write my life story, erasing all the pain and suffering that I caused so many people throughout my life, but I cannot. There is no going back at this point, only forward, and I do so with my head raised and eyes fixed on the horizon.
Everyone experiences their own "alpha" and "omega" points as they travel through this life, but few are able to pause long enough to identify and recognize each of them. It is truly amazing to consider how impactful a singular event can be in the course of a person's life. I have compiled a list of those points and none of them has been more impactful that my serendipitous discovery of "The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire" written by "my man" Deepak Chopra. That book was clearly meant to fall into my hands and the events which have transpired from that day forward seem to have been scripted for my success. Each passing month, and then year, has revealed new depths to my own character despite the pervasive negativity that has often surrounded me. Eventually, I was granted an opportunity to break free from those prison-based politics that bound me within that environment.
The ensuing years of quasi-liberation at a medium security facility have given me an opportunity to delve much deeper into the origin of my issues. These days, I am my own harshest critic, but at the same time, I no longer dwell upon the mistakes of my youth. Now that people have begun to address me as "sir" I can no longer attempt to refer to myself as a "young man," and therefore, I cannot use my "youth" as an excuse for any mistakes, and that is not necessarily such a bad thing. Along with age should come some wisdom, and my life story would suggest that I have accumulated at least a few useful tidbits of hard earned knowledge along the way.
Only six weeks ago my daily routine revolved almost entirely around my personal health and well-being. I taught fitness classes daily up in the Recreation Department and had no knowledge of what took place down the hill inside the Education Department. For two and a half years that routine was most conducive to my personal growth and development. Then one day it occurred to me that I greatly missed engaging in intelligent conversations which I had enjoyed back in the federal penitentiary. As a means of igniting a similar interest amongst some of my fellow inmates, I asked my girlfriend to send me the latest edition of "Word Smart," an old favorite, by "The Princeton Review." Before the book had even arrived, I was unexpectedly invited to join the "Inside Out Program" and subsequently introduced to a group of men and women brimming with intelligent thoughts that each was eager to share. Many of the inside students, whose company I now enjoy on a daily basis, have become close friends and confidants in a relatively brief amount of time. Each time I think I know myself better than ever before another layer of myself is revealed to me.
Everyone who now knows me or knows of me will say that I am a "good guy." What that means to anyone on the inside is that I can go to any federal prison across this country and I'll be met with open arms. This is on account of the reputation I forged for myself throughout the years in the federal penitentiary. I am known not only as "the guy with 213 years" but also as "the fitness guru who teaches all those classes in Recreation." Some guys have even called me "the fittest man in the BOP." One thing that everyone knows is that I am passionate about health and fitness. Becoming a teacher allowed me to share that passion with other men, and in doing so, it also taught me a great deal more about myself. I cannot conceive how I might have become the man I am today under any other circumstances, so for that I am eternally grateful.
Time right now seems to be on my side, as ironic as that may sound. My life is good. The smile on my face is genuine and it radiates from my heart. I have the unconditional love and support of my family and good friends. Every morning I am excited to get up and face whatever challenges, physical or mental, await me. I realize that the things I say or do each day have the potential to positively influence the men around me and thus make my life seem more meaningnful. No matter where all this may lead me, I will always remain true to myself by reflecting on the phrase, Nosce Te Ipsum, without fail at the beginning and end of each day.
Inside Out ProgramThe Inside Out Program was initially envisioned by a group of "lifers" at Graterford State Prison in Pennsylvania who were only able to bring the program to life with the assistance of Temple University Professor Lori Pompa in 1997. Over the years the program has been successfully instituted at hundreds of state prisons across the country. However, the Federal Bureau Of Prisons remained unwilling to permit the program inside any of its facilities until 2008, when the women's prison in Hazelton, working in coordination with the University of West Virginia, was finally granted authorization. Four years later, with a tremendous amount of support from the University of Pittsburgh and a very persistent Criminal Justice Professor by the name of Dr. Tony Gaskew, FCI McKean became the first MALE federal facility to host the program. I was extremely fortunate to have been chosen for that class and am now deeply honored to be able to refer to myself as a "graduate" of that very first class. I hope that the success of my class will encourage the FBOP to expand the Inside Out Program nationwide so that other men can share in what we experienced.
About the program itself...Each Inside Out class consists of approximately 15 "inside students", selected from the general prison population, combined with an equal number of "outside students", selected from the local associated university. The class then meets inside the prison each week, for a full semester, to participate in an accredited college course. The university professor and each of the outside students must all submit to all the rules, regulations and security procedures of the prison in order to gain weekly admittance. Federal facilities are especially restrictive when it comes to allowing non-staff members into the institution, and unfortunately our class experienced that reality first hand when we were delayed or cancelled on more than one occasion due to security concerns. I know that it was a bit intimidating for those outside students initially but, to their credit, they all seemed to value the experience and I never once heard any of them complain.
University professors who are interested in facilitating the Inside Out Program must first attend a special training course inside Graterford State Prison, where the program originated. My Inside Out Professor, Dr. Tony Gaskew was a retired DEA Agent, accomplished author, and highly respected University of Pittsburgh Criminal Justice Professor who completed his training there and then somehow managed to convince certain FBOP officials and FCI McKean Warden Bobby Meeks to allow him to teach from the highly controversial book titled "The New Jim Crow....Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness" by Michele Alexander. Dr. Gaskew did a masterful job of providing us with hard statistics, followed by thought provoking inquiries, that always guided our discourse toward a new insight or meaningful conclusion. I can state with great confidence that the diversity of views and well articulated arguments concerning the U.S. criminal justice system shared here at FCI McKean rivaled that found inside any esteemed college classroom or lecture hall across the country.
My Inside Out experience helped to not only reshape my personal vision for the future but it also created a plethora of opportunities that are now transforming that very vision into reality. As I reviewed my weekly "reflection" papers, each one an attempt to articulate of my views concerning our most recent reading assignment or class discussion, I was amazed by all that had transpired over the course of a single semester. When I wrote these papers I had no intention of ever sharing them, primarily because I didn't think anyone would be interested in what I had written. However, after responding to a number of recent queries about them, I figured that posting them as a blog might prove beneficial to the future expansion of the program, and/or to someone else similarly situated. I have no qualms about "putting myself out there" for someone else's benefit.
Please keep in mind that these are only MY personal views, unless a specific source is cited, and they have been shaped by my nearly 17 years of incarceration since the age of 18. Enjoy the read and feel free to leave your questions or comments below...A
I'm definitely NOT just your average guy that's doin' time...According to the Federal Bureau Of Prisons I still owe them a couple more centuries before they'll let me outta here. Despite my current predicament I've decided to fully embrace the immortal words of my man, the O.G. of Cool, Mr. James Dean who said to "Dream as if you'll live forever and live as if you'll die today". I may be stuck physically here in prison but I sure as hell ain't dead yet...in fact I figure that I'm still about 60 to 70 years away from my final day but that won't make me change the way I'm living today. This blog is my window out into the world and while I'm looking out you may just catch a glimpse inside mine. Let me know if you like what you see... and if you don't, feel free to disagree and let me know what's really on your mind.