While serving 26 years in prison, I studied the law to learn more about how society evolved. In Section 13 of Prison, My 8,344th Day, I show readers how reading case law helped me through a typical day during the 23rd year of my term.
Prison! My 8,344th Day—Section 13—Statutes and Case Law
It’s 1:37 in the afternoon.
I walk to a shelf against the back wall in the law library and pull a random volume from the Federal Reporter series. When I lose too much time contemplating the challenges ahead or how I will earn a sufficient living to prepare for old age, I force myself to snap out of the worries. Conscious, deliberate action always helps me restore confidence. Tangible projects carry me through the day. If I’m not writing, I find something to read—anything that will relate to the career I want to build when I get out. The law books have always been a great resource to learn.
I think back to those early days after my arrest when DEA agents took me to the federal holding center in Miami. I was 23 years old and didn’t know anything about the law. The books in the law library didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t know anything about the judicial process. At that time, I only wanted to get out of jail. Had I known more then, I may have made better decisions—decisions that would not have required that I serve multiple decades in prison.
Opportunity costs accompany every decision we make. Regrettably, I didn’t get the whole meaning of that message until after my judge sentenced me to a 45-year sentence. By reading the law books, I learned more about the judicial system.
We have 53 different criminal justice systems in the United States. Every state has its criminal code, the military has a criminal code, the District of Columbia has a criminal code, and we have the federal system. I became familiar with the federal system.
After a grand jury indicted me, a District Court judge presided over my case. In the federal system, we have 90+ jurisdictions with many District Courts. Investigators and prosecutors present their allegations in The District Court, and a federal judge serves as a referee, listening to the accusations or charges. The judge considers statutes, case law, and procedure—the rules of justice. When the District Court judge decides, allegations become facts.
If defendants believe that they did not receive due process in the District Court or believe that administrators of justice overstepped their bounds, they can appeal to the Circuit Court. Every person that has gone through a District Court has a right to appeal to the Circuit Court.
Three judges from the Circuit Court will review the lower court’s decisions. In most cases, Circuit Court judges affirm the lower court’s decision—meaning they agree with the finding of fact. Sometimes, a majority of the three judges rule in favor of defendants; they may either vacate the decision or remand the case for further proceedings in the District Court. If a person doesn’t like the decision from the three judges, the person can appeal for an en banc decision, requesting all judges on the Circuit Court to review the case.
Finally, we have the US Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. Nine Justices listen to cases that make it to the Supreme Court. People can petition the Supreme Court to hear an appeal, but the Justices authorize less than 5% of the petitioners to appeal rulings from the Circuit Court. Typically, the Supreme Court only agrees to hear cases of national importance.
I’ve learned a great deal by reading judicial cases from District and Circuit Courts. The Federal Supplement series publishes decisions from District Courts, but I’ve always enjoyed reading The Federal Reporter series, which publishes judicial decisions from the nation’s circuit courts.
I don’t read judicial decisions with any hopes of finding loopholes that may influence my release date. I read judicial rulings to learn more about business. I like to find cases that profile business leaders that went through government investigations. It’s surprising how many business leaders make decisions that bring them into the crosshairs of the criminal justice system.
If I create content to help business leaders make better decisions, I think that I can build an income stream. For that reason, reading the law feels like a productive use of my time.
It’s challenging to comprehend how the world has changed since I first walked into federal prison on August 11, 1987. The world has moved on with technological advances that I cannot fully understand. I’ve read a great deal about the internet, but I don’t get it completely. I’ve never sent an email, never seen a smartphone. Prison has become my life, the only life I’ve known as an adult.
The punishment phase ended long ago, decades ago. I finished serving my eighth year when I was 31. Hofstra awarded my master’s degree, and I felt ready for release by then. I could have returned to society as a contributing citizen. I could have started to build my career or started building businesses. Yet mechanisms didn’t exist for judges to review whether continued imprisonment served the interests of justice, and I would have to serve decades longer. In retrospect, those years have become a blur. I’ve been a prisoner, and prison has become a central part of my life.
Life moves forward, and I make the most of every day, grateful for the many blessings I receive. Still, I’m conscious that an entire generation has grown up during the years I served. Both of my sisters married and have children that I hardly know.
My grandfather and my father passed away. I’ve been away for so many birthdays and holidays that I no longer identify with what it means to celebrate such festivities. In ten days, Carole and I will celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary, but rules have limited our physical intimacy to nothing more than a kiss under bright lights and the watchful eyes of officers overseeing visiting rooms.
Contemplating the past furthers my sense of urgency to prepare. But success has a different meaning for me than it does for others.
Success means that I never return to confinement; it means that I live a contributing life; it means that I earn a reputation based on how I responded to a lengthy prison term rather than the reckless decisions I made as a younger man. Success means that I live in ways that prove me worthy of the love and support I receive from so many people; I live as the best husband, the best American, and the best human being. Reading legal decisions helps me prepare.
Since I’m not looking for anything more than general knowledge when I read legal case books, it doesn’t matter which volume or series I grab. The case book I’m reading today describes decisions from the fall of 2007. I start with the first case, reading the caption to quickly decide whether I should devote more time to reading the procedural history. I’m particularly interested in criminal law, so I flip past the pages describing immigration or civil proceedings cases.
I want to read about decisions that bring people to prison—not for obvious crimes like murder, robbery, or drug trafficking. Those types of crimes don’t teach me much. I learn from cases that involve more esoteric actions that lead to charges and convictions for crimes like fraud, securities violations, or tax offenses. I’m also interested in decisions that result in the revocation of supervised release. Understanding the types of technical violations that can return a person to prison will prove helpful to me later.
If I step back and reason, it seems absurd to obsess about staying out once I’m released. I was 21 when I started selling cocaine. Before then, I didn’t know anyone who had been arrested or served time in prison. Those people wouldn’t think about precautions to avoid further entanglements with the criminal justice system. Most people live without the anxieties that I expect to shadow the rest of my life. Perceptions may change when I return to society. For now, thoughts about preparations and precautions consume me. I want to avoid any future altercations with law enforcement.
Although others may disagree, I am convinced that my preoccupation with the steps I must take to prepare for reentry are valid. I don’t know a single person serving time in prison who thinks he will face further problems with the law after release. Yet countless men serve time alongside me who describe going through the system on multiple occasions.
Those who adhere to a criminal lifestyle can easily connect the dots on how their decisions and their associates led them into further problems with the law. But I’ve met many well-educated people who led professional careers, finished a prison term, returned to society, and then months or years later, found themselves in the clutches of the criminal justice system again. It’s my responsibility to know the risks and ensure that I live in such a transparent way that the web of this system never traps me again. Other people may not feel the need to consider such risks. I do.
Reading through judicial decisions confirms that judges will not tolerate those who violate conditions of supervised release, even if the person doesn’t commit new criminal actions. I live alongside men who returned to prison for such technical violations as using credit cards without permission from their probation officers or applying for a loan without permission. Others return to prison because they traveled outside of their districts without permission; others for maintaining residences that the probation officers didn’t authorize.
I expect to complete my term Supervised Release without complication by living with discipline and commitment. I don’t use drugs, I will live faithfully to my wife in a stable home, and I will not associate with people who engage in criminal behavior. Our residence will not have any firearms, we won’t use drugs, and I won’t associate with criminals.
We will not struggle with financial pressures or live beyond our means. Carole and I regularly discuss the importance of transparency in our life, and she joins my commitment to live in compliance with every condition my probation officer imposes.
Despite such commitments, I feel an unnatural threat of future problems with the law hanging over me. Dreams of handcuffs sometimes torment me while I sleep. For at least the past 20 years, every dream I’ve had related to prison somehow. Those dreams follow a theme. Either I’m flying away, wondering how I’m going to return without anyone noticing; I’m shopping for items I crave but wondering how I can carry them back into prison with me; I’m trying to convince someone I’m not a criminal. The worst dreams are those with law enforcement officials interrogating me, not believing me.
It’s 1:52 in the afternoon. Since my work assignment begins in eight minutes., I push the chair back, stand, and return the case book to the shelf in the law library. A dozen people read or study quietly here, each of us in our world. I grab a stack of white typing paper to bring back with me and head toward the door.
“Where are you going?” The question stops me in mid-step. I pause to look at the library clerk. He’s relatively new at Taft camp, and we’ve never spoken before. “You can’t take the typing paper,” he tells me.
“Why’s that?” I’m annoyed by people in prison who take on the role of staff.
He tells me the typing paper is only for legal work.
“Who are you, the typewriter police?” I ask.
“No. I’m the law librarian,” he says and points to a sign on the wall warning that typewriters are only for legal work.
“I’m not using a typewriter. I’m taking typing paper,” I say.
He continues to object, telling me that we’re only supposed to use paper for typing legal work and says the rules are the rules.
The inmate shakes his head as I walk out. I’m upset by interferences from people serving time alongside me. I have much to learn from my friend Bali, who is a portrait of humility.
I shake off the frustration. Men like the person working as the librarian live in denial. They’re determined to show others that they’re not criminals—like everyone else. In their view, unlike others in the camp, they don’t belong in prison.
The time I’ve served has kept me close to every type of prisoner. By learning how to read them, I’ve navigated my way around problems. In high security, I showered in open rooms with murderers and rapists. I ate meals at tables beside gang members and other thugs in medium- and low-security facilities.
In camps, I’m with numerous people who feel as if they have lessons to teach on the principles of good conduct. Today I’m not inclined to listen. With my stack of typing paper, I’ll be ready to write when I wake up to start my work at one o’clock tomorrow morning.
I’m fortunate to have a job assignment that suits me. I work as an orderly in the housing unit, and my job is to tidy two rooms—both the size of a bedroom. One is a room where men come together to watch Spanish television stations, and the other is the adjacent quiet room where I spend so much time writing every day.
My job is ideal. Writing requires time, concentration, and solitude. Not all jobs would give me the liberty to set my schedule, and some would require me to work in distracting conditions. The more time I can spend alone, the better off I feel here.
- In what ways would an understanding of the law influence your prospects for success upon release?
- How does your job assignment open or limit opportunities in your preparations for success?
- What steps are you taking to comprehend how the world is changing or evolving while serving your sentence?