I’m a day behind in writing my journal. This morning I’m on a flight from Philadelphia back to Orange County. Sitting in this seat, I reflect on the morning of August 12, 2013, when I finished my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons. Although ten years have passed, I have clear memories of that morning.
For six months, I had been wearing an ankle bracelet and living with restrictions that a halfway house had placed upon me. A case manager, “Ms. Melody,” reminded me continuously that while in the halfway house, the system considered me “still in custody.” We had many disagreements. She gloated when telling me what I couldn’t do and grew frustrated or angry when I showed policy statements that undermined her authority. Ms. Melody misunderstood the level of power she had over my liberty.
A particular incident upset her. The San Francisco Chronicle published a front-page story that profiled my return to society after 25 years in prison. The article made it clear that I had spoken with the journalist. Had I not spoken with him, he could not have written about the preparations I’d made while serving my sentence or how those preparations opened opportunities. It included images of our house and testimonials from others in my support group. The newspaper published the article over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2012, to my joy and her dismay.
On Monday morning, Ms. Melody ordered that I visit her office by 10:00 a.m. Her summons upset my morning. With traffic, the unexpected commute through Marin County and across the Golden Gate Bridge would require 60 minutes. Fortunately, the frustrations of living in custody felt like part of the journey.
She didn’t say good morning when I walked into her office. “You’re not authorized to speak with the media! I’m going to see about sending you back.”
In America, I reminded her, we had freedom of speech.
“But you’re still in custody.”
By then, I had learned how to use my iPhone, and I pulled up the BOP policy statement. Ms. Melody called her supervisor to inquire about further restrictions she could impose on me. After reading the policy statement, the manager agreed that I was within my rights.
When I left the halfway house that morning, I had approximately eight more months to serve under her watchful eye. The newspaper article put me on thin ice with her. But it opened many opportunities that advanced my career. It led to an invitation from San Francisco State University to teach as an adjunct professor and speaking opportunities at some of the best universities across the country. In many ways, that newspaper article influenced why I visited Philadelphia to attend the annual conference of the American Correctional Association.
Effective advocacy requires that we reach a wider audience. Presenting ideas that differ from accepted practices exposes us to cynical minds. People like “Ms. Melody” want things to remain the same. I expect to face resistance from those people when I advocate for reforms that include:
- Reinstatement of US Parole,
- Expanded use of Earned Time Credits for all,
- Work release programs,
- Broader use of social furloughs, compassionate release, and clemency.
We will see change when others recognize the value of a merit-based system. To improve outcomes of the criminal justice system, we must solve for the result we want. We want more people to leave prison as law-abiding, contributing citizens. To get that result, we should incentivize excellence. If people prepare well, they will open opportunities to transition into society successfully.
Advocating for those programs will bring resistance. But the effort will help us make a positive impact on society. We hope that everyone in our community will be a part of the solution by working through our course, Preparing for Success after Prison, and memorializing their journey with a profile on Prison Professors Talent.
Anyone can join by sending an email to [email protected].