Awareness and Authenticity: Part 3 

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4-3-Awareness and Authenticity

Regardless of what bad decisions we may have made in the past, at any time, we can begin making good decisions. Yet we must always anticipate that people will question our authenticity. Therefore, we must always keep our heads in the game, knowing the opportunity costs that accompany every decision we make. 

As a young man, I used to listen to classical rock, and I remember the lyrics from a song by the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Like every other person in prison, I wanted to get out. After my judge sentenced me to serve a 45-year prison term, the US Marshalls transferred me to a high-security penitentiary. I had been locked in solitary cells, incarcerated for about a year in pre-trial proceedings before I walked on the penitentiary’s yard. While going through transit, I became more aware of the inner workings of the federal prison system.

The more I learned about the system, the more I wanted to engineer an adjustment plan. In time, I hoped the adjustment plan would lead to a more successful release. More importantly, I hoped that plan would help me emulate the leadership of Frederick Douglass—making me an authentic voice for prison and sentence reform. 

Although other people in prison advised that the best way to serve time would be to forget about the world outside and focus on a prison reputation, I hated being in prison. If I spent all my time trying to fit into the prison system, I would learn skills that might help me fit in with the prison society. Yet those skills seemed unlikely to advance me as a candidate for the success I wanted to experience on the other side of the journey. By the time I would move into the latter phase of my prison experience, I hoped that others would view me as being authentic in my quest to advocate for a better prison experience.

In the mid-1980s, the prison system was in a transitional stage. For decades, judges had used an indeterminate sentencing system. In other words, a judge would impose a sentence after a jury convicted a person, or a person pled guilty. Yet the system had a series of mechanisms that would serve as release valves. For example, people could file motions allowing them to ask a judge to reconsider the sentence. If the judge agreed that the sentence no longer served the interests of justice, he would have jurisdiction to reconsider.

Besides filing judicial motions seeking relief from the sentence, people could get relief through administrative mechanisms from either the prison system or from the US Parole Commission. The prison system incentivized people to avoid disciplinary infractions with credit for “good time.” By avoiding disciplinary infractions, people could complete the sentence much sooner than the time a judge imposed. For example, my judge sentenced me to 45 years. If I did not lose any good time for violating disciplinary rules, I could complete that sentence in 26 years—or 9,500 days. Every person in federal prison could earn credit for good behavior—or receive credit for avoiding bad behavior.

The US Parole Commission provided another release mechanism under the indeterminate sentencing system. It operated as a separate body from the Bureau of Prisons. When I began serving my sentence, members of the Parole Board would visit the prison. Typically, a person who qualified would meet with the Board after he completed one-third of the sentence imposed. During that time, he could work to build a personal case showing why he was a worthy candidate for release on parole. If members of the Board agreed, they would allow him to return home. If he abided by the conditions of release, he would be able to live in society, go to work, and in many ways, resume his life.

If a person’s statutory conviction did not render him ineligible for release on parole, the person could expect to serve a third of the sentence in prison and the remainder on parole in the community. If a person had a sentence of longer than 30 years, even a life sentence, the US Parole Commission could consider the person for release on parole after ten years.

That sentencing law changed for anyone convicted after November 1, 1987. After that cutoff date, people would serve determinate sentences, also known as “truth-in-sentencing” laws. If a judge imposed a sentence, the person could expect to serve at least 85% of the sentence. Those sentences became known as the “guideline” era, one contributor to America’s movement to mass incarceration.

While I advanced through different stages of my sentence, I hoped to build credentials that would lead to improvements of the system. As Jim Collins wrote about in his book Good to Great, advocacy for prison and sentence reform would become my BHAG—Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.

Question:

Write responses to the following questions in approximately ten minutes. If participating in a class setting, discuss verbally.

4-7: In what way could awareness influence preparations before sentencing?

4-8: What steps could a person take to shape perceptions of stakeholders?

4-9: How are the interests of stakeholders similar or different from the interests of people going through the system?

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