Watching Children Grow Up in Prison

The youngest juvenile offender I’ve ever known was 14 years old (see Wrongful Convictions). Sadly his is a story of tragedy, but I’m happy to report all of them are not like this. I estimate that I’ve known around 300 incarcerated juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17, all of them tried as adults. From this group, I still know about a dozen of them to this day, adults now of course, most having served out lengthy sentences and returned to the free world. A few of them are still incarcerated. Those that are free have families of their own or are married and planning for one. I keep in contact with each and every one of them.

Unfortunately, that dozen is a minority. Many juvenile offenders will serve out their sentences, some upwards of 25 years, before being regurgitated back into society with no real life experience, all expected to somehow pick up and carry on without issue. Throw in a lack of family or community support, or a lack of real world job experience and skills, and you have a high probability of recidivism.

I used to believe that punishment was the key to handling crimes committed by juveniles. After more than two decades interacting with kids convicted as adults, I’m now convinced that I was wrong. It was a short-sighted and very uninformed view. Yet, this view is held by nearly half of all Americans. The other half contends that we cannot handle children the same as adults, as there are almost always mitigating circumstances in the child’s background that can be traced back to the offensive behavior. I fall more into this camp than the other, but I think both camps have valid arguments.

Sometimes we should punish adult behavior with adult time, but only after exhausting all other avenues and considering all other circumstances directly related to the individual’s age, mental state, and background. This means a careful examination of the child’s home life and family support, socio-economic situation, and past behavior amongst other things. Sadly, this is often lost in the heat of public anger on the heels of high profile crimes committed by these youth. Prosecutors are solely focused on obtaining convictions. It’s up to the juvenile’s counsel to present alternatives–and arguments for alternatives–to incarceration, and to offer evidence why this should be considered by a judge.

Herein lays another problem. Most of the juvenile offenders I’ve known came from poor or dysfunctional backgrounds. They were represented at trial by public defenders appointed to them by the courts, because they or their families could not afford an attorney. By their nature the offices of public defenders and those dedicated to the service carry very heavy caseloads. Resources are sparse and they are literally forced to choose which cases they will devote meaningful resources to. This is beyond the scope of today’s entry, but I discuss this disparity in Wrongful Convictions.

Before I continue I need to provide a little background. There are so many juveniles incarcerated in Ohio, that at my institution an entire cell block was once dedicated to housing them before the state scattered them throughout the system to save money. When the unit was fully housed there were 120 juvenile offenders. All of them were under the age of 18, most between the ages of 15 and 16. Within the unit was a unit manager who was tasked with overseeing the function of that unit, as well as 3 other units (approximately 480 offenders); one case manager who was tasked with handling juvenile case files and managing things like visitors lists and special needs related to one’s family or local institutional issues; one custody officer (here known as a “C.O.”) whose job entailed daily unit security and tasks; and one unit sergeant tasked with overseeing custody staff, unit security and disciplinary write ups against other things. Within this juvenile unit was a segregated area caged and secured, and used to house juveniles under disciplinary punishment for having violated institutional rules. A type of mini ‘hole.’

The juveniles interacted with adult inmates whenever they were outside of the housing unit: at recreation, education, medical, the chow hall, and on the yard. It was like this for years. And for years these children were preyed upon by adult offenders, extorted and assaulted, and treated as a means to an end by predators. The unofficial stance of the state of Ohio was ‘See no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil.’ Until one day, a gang of convicts seized control of the entire juvenile unit and set about methodically hunting and killing. By some miracle the loss of life was limited to one, and the state was no longer able to turn a blind eye. I knew every child in that unit. I also knew the child who was murdered, for I tutored him and a number of the other kids in their GED studies.

In the course of tutoring juveniles I found myself wanting to understand how and why some of them came to find themselves sitting in front of me. The more I got to know them, the more I became convinced that I was wrong that punishment alone was the key. Time and again I discovered there were mitigating factors behind each of their actions, nearly all of which could be traced back to lack of strong family structure or guidance. A disproportionate number of them came from the foster care system.

I’ve tutored many juveniles over the years. Oftentimes they lacked basic math or reading skills and I had to develop lessons that taught them while simultaneously keeping them engaged. It was no easy task.

My first eye-opening tutoring moment came when I tried teaching fractions. A number of the kids had difficulty understanding what 1/8 of something was, but if I framed it as a street question, “If you have a pound of marijuana and you divide it amongst eight friends, how much would each person receive?” my students got it. This may seem strange, but when you connect with the kids they become actively engaged. Once engaged you can steer them into constructive directions. I discovered that past drug abuse was often a factor in their lives, and I would always strive to take a negative like that and create a positive from it.

From tutoring I slowly transitioned into becoming a mentor. This of course isn’t a job here or something the corrections department mandated as part of tutoring. It’s a personal decision. Mentoring and tutoring are two distinctly different things. You can tutor and not get involved in the student’s personal life. When you mentor you are taking on an active and deliberate role in the individual’s life.

I remember clearly the moment I decided to become a mentor. I had a student named Alex that I’d tutored for a little more than a month in math and science. He was a quiet kid, but when he spoke his words came sharp and his tone was defiant. He hailed from the great foster care system of Ohio, and was 16 years old. He had one brother and one sister, both younger than him and both placed with foster families. His father had walked out of his life the day he was born, there just long enough to give him a name. His mother was a heroin addict (and thus his journey into foster care).

By the time he found himself sitting in front of me at a table in a prison cell block, he’d been passed between different foster families before being ensnared by the criminal justice system. At first glance, he looked like any other teen boy you might see at your local mall.

When I met him he was a sullen kid and often refused to participate in his studies. He didn’t see the point in it, he’d told me many times, so tell him why he should get a GED? This became a recurring conversation, and frankly, frequently pushed me to the edge of my patience. I had thought about quitting tutoring, that I didn’t need the stress. Those of us that tutored had volunteered for the job assignment.

In many ways I saw in him a reflection of myself when I was his age, and I think this is why I was unwilling to give up on him. I couldn’t have known then that 2 decades hence I’d become a father figure to him, and a driving force in his rehabilitation and successful reintegration back into society.

The first clue that there was more to this angry kid came when we weren’t in class. I was on the yard one summer afternoon walking the track by myself when Alex suddenly appeared at my side. A conversation ensued and this is how it went:

“Alex,” I said, “what brings you out here?” Until that moment I had never seen him on the yard.

“I don’t know,” he muttered, as if my question had taken him off guard.

“Okay, then.” I had been listening to music before he arrived and I had taken the headphones from my head. I now went to put them back on.



“You want to throw softball or something?” His voice was different. Gone were his sharp words and omniscient accusing tone.

I was momentarily taken aback. This was the last thing I thought I’d ever hear him say. I didn’t know what to say, so I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Um, okay; you go get the ball and gloves though.”

And so he went off into the distance, disappearing into the recreation building. When he returned he didn’t have any gloves or balls, but he had a frisbee. It was one of those red ring type frisbees with a big hole in the center.

“They wouldn’t give me two gloves, so I asked for a frisbee,” he said.

And I suddenly understood what was happening. This defiant kid had been tossed around the foster care system like inventory, placed in families with good intentions but vastly unprepared to handle his baggage; split from his siblings and mother and who never had a father; had been ensnared by a criminal justice system and tossed into an adult prison, further reinforcing in his mind that no one cared; had been rejected over and over again by the adults in his life he looked up to for guidance; and that he never really had the one thing he wanted: a father figure.

So, I threw the frisbee with him that afternoon and saw for the first time a kid that was, well, just a kid. That night I lay awake thinking of Alex’s situation. I didn’t sign up for this, I remember thinking. I don’t need this kids problems. I should quit tutoring now.

Yet, I showed up for class the following day. Alex arrived with a single sheet of paper and pencils (he never had them), and the first thing he said to me was, “Will you help me with my math?” Of course, I thought. “Of course I’ll help you. Sure.”

Six months later he took the pre-GED and then a month later passed the GED test. He was incredibly proud of this, and to be honest so was I. When Alex was 18 he left the juvenile unit and was transferred to another institution (as was the norm for kids turning 18). We kept in touch regularly by mail. Sometimes he asked for advice, other times our communication was about the future and what it held, but most of the time it was just random musings. He served a 15 year sentence and was released in 2012. He was married in 2016, and has reconnected with his sister and brother.

In 2010, two years before his release, his mother overdosed on heroin. Alex now works at a local drug rehabilitation center helping addicts find sobriety. We keep in contact to this day.


Wrongful Convictions

One of the first juveniles I met during my incarceration was a 14 year old. Yes, 14 years old. At the time, he was the youngest person ever to be convicted as an adult in the United States.

His story is one of inexplicable tragedy. He came from a poor home where his father was a drug addict and his mother abusive. He has siblings, and spent the duration of his short childhood caring for them and trying to survive. For all intents and purposes his parents were parents in legal title only. He may as well have been living with strangers in a foreign land.

I’m not going to tell you the name of this offender, but I will tell you what I call him: Mouse. Mouse is a small fellow (thus the nickname I coined), and has never been much more than 150 pounds over the decades I’ve known him. He’s quiet, yet inquisitive. He’s smart, yet never talks down to anyone. If you didn’t know him it would be easy to overlook him in a crowd.

Mouse is serving a life sentence for the deaths of two elderly people. His sentence is extreme in its duration and his punishment is the worst I’ve ever seen save for the death penalty. Worse, he isn’t guilty of the crimes he’s serving time for. The murders were committed by friends (other juveniles) he was with on that fateful day; his only act of indiscretion was being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time. It was, in my opinion, just another cruel twist of fate life has dished at him since the day he was born.

In the ensuing outrage, Mouse and his friends were charged with homicide. However, sometimes there are injustices in sentencing. Innocent people go to jail and the guilty sometimes go free. Within this spectrum of erroneous sentencing, some go to jail for short periods of time, others for a lifetime. Mouse, unfortunately, is on the far end of that spectrum where his punishment of 40 years-to-life makes even hardened convicts feel for him. The last I heard, a non-profit group that works to exonerate the innocent was working on his case. I wish him luck. Unfortunately, in the United States, once you are behind bars it’s nearly impossible to reverse your circumstances even if innocent. This is especially true if you are poor.

Over the years I’ve wondered how many guys around me are in fact innocent. The number is small, to be sure, less than 1% I’d estimate based on my experience. Sometimes though, I wonder if I am wrong. In addition to Mouse, I knew two other individuals who were innocent, serving long sentences for crimes they did not commit. One was exonerated through DNA testing and released to heavy media fanfare, and the other was exonerated when facts came to light that the prosecution hid evidence of his innocence.

This type of prosecutorial misconduct isn’t isolated. I know and have known dozens of offenders who experienced similar actions to varying degrees. When I ponder why a prosecutor would go to such unethical lengths, I cannot help but conclude that it boils down to obtaining the conviction. Intentionally overcharge the defendant as a strategy to get counsel to consider plea bargains, and vigorously fight for each charge when this strategy fails. It’s a common practice throughout the United States, and is done to increase the probability of a conviction.

So this begs another question: How many people are incarcerated who were convicted of crimes that they committed, and a lesser crime that they did not commit due to such practices? In this realm I know about 200 individuals convicted in this manner.

For example, an offender I know is guilty of aggravated robbery, but was also convicted of grand theft for items stolen from the crime scene, yet he was not guilty of this. The conviction of grand theft may seem minor in comparison to the aggravated robbery charge, and one may say, “So what? What difference does it make?”

In the years after his conviction, information surfaced that the prosecution knew he was innocent and had withheld evidence from his counsel. But since he has already exhausted his appeals, he has few avenues to pursue. So in the end this offender is serving 10 years for the aggravated robbery and 2 years for the grand theft. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put yourself if those shoes and consider this for a moment. You will serve 10 years of your life for a crime you committed (the aggravated robbery charge), and then 2 years for a crime you didn’t commit. Doesn’t sound so insignificant now, does it? This happens frequently.

This can happen to you, too. No? You don’t need to commit robbery to be on the receiving end. The scale of prosecutorial misconduct slides in proportion to the most severe charge you face. A common example would be someone convicted of a DUI, and then being convicted of lesser traffic violations that they did not commit. Prosecutorial misconduct is prevalent enough that some media networks have made millions airing shows like 48 Hours or custom documentaries that sometimes highlight the issue.

If you are poor, you face a tougher road in proving your innocence in these situations. Public defenders assigned to your case carry heavy caseloads and little time to fight ‘minor grievances.’ Most of the time public defenders advise their clients to ‘pick their battles’ or ‘mention it on appeal,’ which is another way of saying, “You are poor and we don’t have the resources to fight this for you. If you had a paid attorney, this issue simply boils down to billing hours.”


They’re Your Friends and Neighbors

I was watching the news earlier and couldn’t help but notice that there were reports of 3 heroin overdoses and 2 drug related deaths. Not for the week or for the month, but for today. Ohio is ground zero for the heroin epidemic, and not a day passes without news of another heroin overdose and death. The life-saving drug Narcan is a household name amongst heroin addicts, and even institutional staff keep it at the ready. Street drugs are abundant here and heroin appears to be today’s drug addicts drug of choice.

Behind these walls it is a revolving door of offenders with drug convictions and related charges. Most of them are pulling short sentences of 6 months to a couple of years at best, and most of them will return to prison for the same things. There is a saying for this here; it is called “life on the installment plan.” This crowd can be divided into two groups. The first consists of small-time drug users convicted of crimes such as conveyance or possession. The second group consists of offenders serving time for theft crimes. It is this second group that sought to maintain their habits by stealing from others, such as family and friends, employers, local businesses—anywhere and everywhere. Once incarcerated, they steal from the institution and they steal and lie to their peers.

It goes without saying that I interact with this crowd with eyes wide open. I’ve talked to hundreds of men about their drug addictions and I’ve asked all the hard questions. Most guys are willing to talk about their addictions, and conversations are matter-of-fact like. These men know they have a terrible problem, and they talk about their drug of choice as ‘one of those things’ or ‘what’s a guy to do?’ This is true for every type of addict I’ve ever met except for one: the DUI crowd (the alcoholics). The denial exhibited from this crowd warrants a post of its own and I will discuss this group later.

When an addict is high he feels on top of the world. Some of my addict friends are quite pleasant to be around when they are high. They’re functional, alert, happy, helpful, hardworking, and a dozen other adjectives. It’s when the addict is in-between highs where everything goes to hell-in-a-hand-basket. They’re literally physically sick, some to the point of vomiting. They’re in constant mental and physical pain, and in many respects resemble someone exposed to a biological agent. They lose rational thought, and at some point, the desire to get high and flee the pain overtakes all reason.

The first overdose death I witnessed happened 21 years ago in a cell block. The individual shot heroin in a dosage similar to what he used on the street. Unfortunately, he failed to take into consideration his lowered tolerance as a result of his year of sobriety. His friends, having realized that he overdosed, placed him back into his cell to avoid punishment rather than seek help. The custody staff found him 4 hours later during the next count.

I watched as staff dragged his motionless body from the cell and made no effort to revive him. They then went on to make jokes, walking over and around his body as they awaited EMS. It was literally an ongoing procession of staff who’d come to see their first dead inmate. It’s a scene that will forever remain seared in my memory, both for its loss and the lack of empathy. I couldn’t help but think that this man’s wife would be devastated and his children traumatized to lose their father at such an early age.

The second overdose I ever witnessed happened in my living area. Thankfully times have changed, and the custody staff and medical staff here took an active role in saving him. I’ve sometimes wondered why so many years ago staff were so unconcerned. They did, after all, know exactly what had happened to the man, for the other inmates had told them. Of course, I was at a higher security level back then and the atmosphere was very different for staff and inmates. I have a lot to say about this as it relates directly to rehabilitation, but alas, that’s another post.

I become aware at least once a week of someone here overdosing, but to lesser degrees than the examples I recounted. Oftentimes you hear them throwing up in the bathroom or in the showers as they attempt to hide their condition from staff. Other times you see them laying on their bunks, pale white and sickly looking as they try to get past the moment.

There is a quantifiable loss to society and to important community resources when society chooses to incarcerate these offenders. Unless drug offenders are diverted to intensive inpatient or outpatient drug treatment programs, tax dollars will continue to be wasted. The revolving door of incarceration will continue to spin onward like one of those widget finger toys. As you have noticed by now I have much to say about rehabilitation and my posts frequently center around this topic. Rehabilitation is an unpopular word with the public, but it is the only way to break the cycle of crime.


The Quality of Your Thoughts

Early in my incarceration I came across this quote by Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” The more I thought about this statement, the more I realized how true it is. I didn’t know who Marcus Aurelius was at the time, but his words sparked my lifelong interest and desire to learn about the teachings of other great philosophers. In many respects, to learn its numerous variations is to learn about yourself and those around you.

The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. Such an undeniable truth. Many years ago I believed that my problems in life were bigger than I could handle, and as a result they became so. For most of my teens and part of my early adult life, I dwelled on the negatives. I seldom noticed the beautiful or the good or that which gives you inspiration. I saw the clouds on mostly sunny days, saw what was missing in a half-empty glass, and found the cold on Spring afternoons. The first half of my life I was often unhappy, frustrated, and angry and didn’t understand why.

The second half of my life has been spent incarcerated. Yet, I am the happiest I have ever been. This may sound hard to believe, but I tell you it’s true. I now have a strong relationship with my family, something I was too self-centered to notice let alone deserve when I was first incarcerated. I see the future as immensely positive and exciting. I literally spend every day of my life pursuing projects that are meaningful to me and my future.

I constantly educate myself. I wanted to learn about the world’s major religions, so I studied them. I wanted to improve my memory because I was terribly absent-minded and so I did. I taught myself the mnemonic techniques that the world’s best use in competition and daily life, and now I member everything I tell myself I will remember. I wanted to understand global politics and the interplay between nations, so I observed and learned. I was curious about Russian history and politics, so I studied and learned. I love learning about people. Every day I seize the moment whenever it presents itself. I mentor guys that need direction and encouragement in their lives and I love it. It’s especially rewarding when I see positive change take root in their lives. I tell this to everyone that will listen to me: how we choose to see the world has everything to do with how we see the world. When we seek happiness and beauty, we find happiness and beauty. When we hate, hate finds us. It’s that simple. I don’t feel that my life is on hold; quite the opposite. I’m living my life every day.

Incarceration is what you make of it. I live in a world of angry men, of human beings stuck in their negative thoughts, addictions and self-pity. They complain about the staff, about the food, about the selection at commissary. They whine about recreation or lament their boredom. They choose to live in a hell that they have created in their minds. By actively looking for the negatives they successfully find them.

Like incarceration, life is what you make of it. If you choose to see the negatives in your spouse or significant other, you will find them. If you come home from a long day at work and all you choose to see are the things you dislike, then you will be mad and you will be miserable. Tell yourself you are unhappy and it becomes true. This is my experience in life. When I’m outside I see the birds and the beauty of the sky. I see sunsets with renewed awe every time.

Lao Tzu once said: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future.” And, Jesus once said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” They, just like Marcus Aurelius and every great sage throughout history, understood this simple truth about life, that life is what we choose it to be.

Years ago I made the decision to let go of anger and negativity. I forgave everyone I ever felt had hurt me. It has been liberating, and now I see the good things in life and in others. And you know what? It’s a wonderful feeling. You can achieve the same things, you only need to believe that you will. Won’t you take that first step? Come journey with me.


What It’s Like to Be Incarcerated

So this seems to be the number one question I am asked, and I suppose it’s probably the number one question most people want to know the answer to. Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question in a single post or two or three. Frankly, this entire blog exists to answer this question.

There are many ways to answer this question, and all of them are correct. My experience being incarcerated may be very different from that of another, as your experience is directly related to a number of factors, the most significant being the security level you are incarcerated at and the country you are in.

I began my time at a high security level, and today I’m going to tell you what that is like. Time there is akin to living in a war zone. You face similar dangers and can come to an end if you aren’t careful. Most states have a tier system to classifying offenders, and this system dictates the security level of incarceration you begin at. It is based on factors such as the type of crime committed and the length of one’s sentence amongst others. Most of you know these designations as ‘super max,’ ‘maximum security,’ ‘medium security,’ and ‘minimum security.’ Some states have different designations such as ‘level 5,’ ‘level 4,’ and so on down to ‘level1,’ and within these designations there are sub-levels such as ‘4A’ or ‘4B’or ‘1A’ or ‘1B’ etc., but they all represent the same thing: the security designation of the housed offender.

At the higher security levels (super max, maximum, level 5, 4, and 3), the inmate population has a harder mentality than at the lowest levels (medium, minimum, levels 2 and 1). Gangs, hate groups, and other Security Threat Groups (STG’s) play a controlling day-to-day role amongst the inmate population. They account for nearly every murder, assault, and extortion and they facilitate the flow of contraband into the institutions. These groups are in constant conflict with institutional administrators and staff, as well as with each other. If you are not part of an STG then you are always faced with the possibility of confrontation with such groups. If you are a member of one of these groups then you place yourself in a position that has the very real potential to destroy your future. You will find yourself at the whim of the group, and yours will always be in constant conflict with the others as each vies for ongoing control within the institution. 

Add to this a hostile administrative atmosphere and you have a never ending brew of stress and tension amongst the inmate population. It is commonplace for fights to break out, some upwards of 20 to 30 individuals at a time. Most inmates at these levels are armed in some way. They either have homemade shivs (i.e., knives) or weapons from the streets. It’s easy to find yourself in a dangerous confrontation if you are not careful.

As an inmate it’s almost always stressful at the high security levels. You must be vigilant, observant, and aware of your surroundings. You must question everything you see and hear, for oftentimes cons are engaged in deceptions for nefarious purposes. If you are young, sexual predators are certainly after you. If you’re new, you’ll be tried by a host of characters from STG groups to robbers and thugs, to cons who prey on your fears and insecurities. There is a rite of passage that everyone new to incarceration goes through. At some point you will be faced with physical violence, and if you flee from it, you will have sealed your fate for the duration of your incarceration. Your time from that point forward will be a living hell. I’ve witnessed the outcome of this and I’ve watched men over the years implode mentally, physically, and spiritually.

For those of you who may be heading to prison I have some advice: NEVER join one of these groups, NEVER put your nose into someone else’s business, NEVER steal, and ALWAYS pay your debts. Understand that this is your wake up call and that you have a decision to make. You can either continue on down the path that has brought you here, which at some point will be your undoing, or you can change. It’s black and white. Zero-sum.

Some of you reading this may have a family member who is incarcerated. This is stressful for everyone and I truly understand this. The best thing you can do is support your loved one. It’s my experience that when family is willing to start anew, the individual usually is willing to do the same. Visit regularly, talk by phone regularly, be proactive in the individuals life. For those of you who want to do these things but are angry or upset over the actions of your loved one, that’s okay too. Give it time- time for yourself, and time for your loved one to consider his or her actions. When you are ready (and you will know when this moment arrives), slowly reconnect.

Before I close, for now understand that most guys never tell their loved ones what incarceration is truly like. It’s difficult, it’s complex, it’s a whole different universe. Hollywood has done a poor job of depicting incarceration; every place isn’t Shawshank Redemption, thankfully. Yet, every place has its aspects of Shawshank. I am happy to write about anything you want to know about regarding incarceration. You need simply ask. I will help you understand so that everyone can move forward.