Section 2: Prison! My 8,344th Day
I’m back in the quiet room. I’ll have to return to my cubicle for the 3:00 a.m. census count in just over an hour. I address an envelope for Carole, then begin writing her a love letter.
Nothing brings more pride, meaning, or gratification to my life than the marriage Carole and I share. We married in a prison visiting room nearly seven years ago, and she has been the reason for every decision I’ve made since she came into my life. In many ways, I feel as if the decisions I made during the first years of my prison journey put me on a pathway to starting a relationship with her. Few men serving lengthy prison terms enjoy the luxury of a good family.
I have great memories of how it all started. During the first few years of my prison term, I remember listening to Gene when I was still locked in a high-security prison. He was serving a life sentence. He told me the story about another person who built a relationship with a woman while serving a long sentence. They married while he served his sentence. That story inspired me. Several years later, Carole and I began our relationship. First, through correspondence, then through visits. She brought a level of liberty to my life.
Before I concluded my day, I sent Carole an envelope that included my daily writing. She helps by typing my work. Anytime guards carry mail out of the housing unit, I ensure the mail sack includes at least one envelope I’m sending to Carole. Today, I’m sending two letters out to her.
Keeping our marriage alive through these years in prison requires a daily commitment. I do everything to show Carole how I live inside these boundaries. The letters show how I plan for our life together after my release.
I anticipate many challenges and obstacles ahead. By preparing to triumph over those challenges, I show my appreciation. Sending her my work makes me feel as if I’m contributing, working to build something that will sustain us in the future.
Typically, those letters reveal my feelings, then detail the progress I’m making on a manuscript I’m writing. I describe my optimism that this prison may soon offer access to email. Although I’ve never sent an email in my life, I anticipate that it will allow us to communicate more regularly. I give her a description of the work I expect to complete before our visit on Friday, only four more wake-up days from now, in about 100 hours.
It’s 2:23 when I finish writing the second page of my letter to Carole. I fold the letter and stuff it in the envelope. Now that I’m moving through the final 10 percent of my time in prison, I frequently drift into thoughts of what it will be like when I’m home with her. Since our relationship began, we’ve never been together outside of a visiting room.
After several minutes of daydreaming in solitude, I realize that I’m losing valuable work. Thoughts of what it will feel like to be free, live with my wife, and work without the complications of prison are like a fantasy. I force my thoughts to the job at hand to snap out of it.
I rarely thought about going home in years past, a concept that didn’t register. Now, as I approach the end of my confinement, I think about the time when finding privacy won’t require that I wake before 2:00 every morning.
I think about what it will be like to sleep in a real bed with the woman I love. What challenges will we face? At 2:29, I stop daydreaming and walk out of the room to drop Carole’s envelope in the outgoing mail slot.
Back at the table, I resume my work on White Collar, a manuscript that I’ll use to educate business professionals on how inattention to ethics can lead to struggles with the criminal justice system.
The more I read about corporate scandals—or people who make unethical decisions to enrich themselves or cut corners to advance their careers—the more confident I become that I’ll be able to earn a living from the intellectual property I create. I’ll use it to teach about the consequences of bad choices.
I’m writing about Walter, a former senior officer for a global corporation. His company manufactured rubber. I interviewed him several months ago. He became entangled in a price-fixing agreement with two of his competitors. According to prosecutors, that agreement amounted to unfair business practices that violated antitrust laws. Walter has since concluded his sentence. From the notes I took during the interview and from memory, I can write a profile—one of many profiles I’ll include in this new manuscript.
I aim to finish White Collar (and several other manuscripts) before the middle of 2011. The manuscript differs from others I’ve written. Rather than writing about my experiences, I’m profiling some of the fascinating men serving time with me.
Their stories should provide teachable lessons, describing how business decisions lead to government investigations. Those investigations can lead to criminal charges for white-collar crimes.
Many people serving sentences for white-collar crimes do not consider themselves criminals. They speak about internal pressures that they faced over one issue or another. Their professional positions gave them the capacity to commit the crime, but many don’t consider the act of bribery, tax evasion, or violations of securities laws as being criminal. Many rationalize their actions, thinking it a fundamental injustice to serve time in prison alongside drug offenders and other criminals.
The manuscript I’m writing, White-Collar will include between 15 and 20 separate profiles of about 2,500 words each. The internet has led to a transition in the publishing market, and I doubt whether a mainstream publisher will bring this manuscript to market. Advances in technology and on-demand printing services for digital books will open opportunities for me to convert White Collar into an income stream. While serving these final months of my sentence, I intend to create dozens of manuscripts, lessons, or case studies. I will convert the writing into an income stream when I get out.
I make progress on Walter’s profile, completing nearly a full page of writing before I look at my watch and see it is already 2:48. I stretch, walk to the laundry room, and transfer my clothes from the washing machine to the dryer. I didn’t have much laundry because I washed my clothes every morning. It’s a strategy I use to avoid crowds.
After folding the clothes, I return to my cubicle, nodding at the second guard who has arrived to assist the other with the 3:00 a.m. census count. The guards on this shift are used to seeing me. They know I use quiet time to write. I’m grateful that they don’t interrupt my solitude with small talk. Prison has taught me to appreciate little things, like quiet. The longer I can avoid talking each morning, the better I feel.
More than 500 men serve time in the Taft federal prison camp. Almost everyone knows me. Since I serve a longer sentence than anyone else, people are curious. They frequently ask about strategies that have helped me make it through the decades.
As human beings, we’re resilient. When we work to make the most of every day, we build strength, restore confidence, and create meaning in the process. I’m courteous to everyone, but I purposely minimize interactions with other people. Unless the conversations relate to my work, I try to stay alone. I’ve found comfort in solitude.
My adjustment differs from those serving shorter sentences, and it differs from when I began serving my term.
I was 23 when the US Marshals transported me to begin serving my sentence in the United States Penitentiary Atlanta. I remember walking into those walls. In my early 20s, I was one of the youngest men in the prison.
I didn’t have the autonomy that I now enjoy. Despite not having a history of violence or weapons, I started in high-security with old-time convicts who wore the tell-tale signs of long-term imprisonment. I felt vulnerable but also determined. I made intentional decisions, engineering my adjustment to minimize my exposure to volatility through the many years I expected to serve. Although my judge sentenced me to serve 45 years, I didn’t know how to process that length of time. I couldn’t believe that I’d have to serve decades before I became eligible for release on parole. The length of time didn’t make sense because I hadn’t been alive that long. Still, I knew that I had a responsibility to prepare. If I didn’t prepare for success upon release, I anticipated that I’d get out to face new challenges—such as finding a way to earn a living.
In the bathroom, I rinse out my plastic coffee mug in the sink, use the toilet again, then wash my face. It’s still dark outside. I’ve walked this path so many times that I know it’s 58 paces down the long, narrow corridor that leads to my cubicle—the last one—number 15, in the back of the housing unit.
As I make my way, I contemplate the profile I’ve begun writing about Walter. It’s just a story about how one man who didn’t consider himself a criminal pled guilty to breaking the law. I’ve met thousands of men who served time for white-collar crimes with similar attitudes.
I anticipate that business leaders will pay me for the intellectual property I’m developing. They will want to learn how business decisions can expose them to civil investigations and troubles with the criminal justice system. If I create a lesson plan to go along with the manuscript, I’ll have a product to sell to human resource managers and other corporate trainers.
I turn right into my cubicle and hear my roommate, David, breathing heavily under the covers. He’s sleeping on the lower rack, generally the preferred spot in any prison setting.
With my seniority, I could have asked for a lower rack. The top rack in a quiet dorm area works better for me. To avoid disturbing David or the other sleeping people, I adjust my plastic chair quietly, turning it 90 degrees away from him. The chair faces the hallway, and I sit to wait for the two guards to finish their census count.
On the inside of my locker door, I have photographs of Carole and me together from various prison visiting rooms. Beneath one picture, I have a calendar that I drew by hand, showing all the days of 2010. I’ve circled the days that Carole and I have visited. This year’s calendar shows fewer circles than in years past. She is studying through nursing school, limiting the number of days she can spend with me. We visit between two and four times each month between January and June.
I stare at the calendar for a moment, looking forward to advancing through the last six months of 2010. I’ll use the time to make progress on the projects I intend to complete. I anticipate many positive changes as we move through the second half of this year.
The obvious plus is that I’ll be closer to my release date when this year ends. But knowing good things happen between now and then bolsters my spirits.
Carole is on summer break from nursing school until mid-August, which means she will visit once every week—the maximum possible days in this prison. Time together with her highlights my life. We’ve sacrificed weekly visits through the first half of this year so that she could complete her final year of school. In mid-August, she resumes school to finish the last semester. With the requirement of her completing prerequisites for nursing school, we’ve been on this path toward her nursing degree for three years.
Although I’ll have to cope with fewer visits when she returns to school, the rumor around the camp is that administrators will open access to email services. This technology will be new to me. For years I’ve been reading about the internet and how it makes business move faster.
I can’t wait to create new opportunities. The preparations I’ve made from the beginning give me confidence that I’ll be able to use them to my advantage. Still, I understand that I’ll have a steep learning curve. Technology like email will help me connect with more people and build relevance. I intend to create more robust support networks to help my transition upon release.
I can’t stop thinking about all the challenges confronting me when I walk out of prison gates. I feel ready, but I’m thinking of steps I can take to prepare more efficiently. I want to hit the ground running.
- How does the time you wake in the morning relate to your preparation for success?
- How are you showing the people you care about that you’re worthy of their support?
- In what ways are you creating tools, tactics,a nd resources to help you transition into society successfully?