I’ve spent most of today thinking about all the positive moments during my incarceration that have inspired me or changed my direction in life. I want to tell you all about one that simultaneously terrified and inspired me. It was a moment that I almost aborted, but am thankful I didn’t.
In 2014 I had the good fortune of personally meeting the Ohio Director of Prisons, Gary Mohr. I was in medium security at the time (level 2 in Ohio), and in the only dorm style housing unit on the compound. It was a transitional unit specifically for those offenders who would soon be leaving level 2 for minimum security. It’s a moment that many offenders view with trepidation because it involves a change in what is otherwise a Groundhog Day existence.
The transitional unit reminded me a bit like being that new goldfish you are about to put into the tank at home. You let him float around in his plastic bag for a while, making sure he’s ready, before setting him loose in a new environment. In a way the transition is necessary for many men, and I think the Ohio Department of Corrections realizes this. By the time you’ve made your way down to this point, you’ve witnessed and experienced terrible and sometimes traumatic things. It’s akin to leaving a war zone. Some men have even suffered from PTSD.
It was spring of that year, and everyone knew that someone of importance was coming. The administration never tells us who for a number of reasons, partly because they don’t want inmates airing the institution’s dirty laundry, and partly for security reasons. I learned that the VIP in question was the Director himself. I had told myself that if I ever had the chance I was going to talk to him because I had a few things to tell him, but not what you may think.
I was sitting at a table in the dayroom area when suddenly an entourage of people entered the unit. There came the warden, then a number of the institutional brass such as the Major and a Captain, followed by the unit manager and the institution’s Unit Management Administer. They were like a moving Maginot line ahead of the director and his people, ready to block, deflect, and discourage any inmate that dared to attempt contact.
Gary Mohr entered the unit with his personal assistant Ms. Melissa Adkins in tow, as well as the regional director. There may have been others, but time has clouded my memory a bit. Until that point I had only seen Director Mohr on television, once when he was appointed by the governor, and a couple of times in interviews. To see him in person was exciting, partly because he was actually here and partly because of what I was about to do.
In that instant I arose from the table, my movement definitely spotted by staff the moment I stood up. The institutional brass shot me frowns of disapproval while shifting left and slightly into my path, enough that I got the message but imperceptible enough that the director himself wouldn’t notice. I felt my stomach suddenly go queasy.
“Excuse me, Director Mohr?” I said.
Director Mohr turned toward me. I was relieved and smiled when he said, “What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment.”
“Sure,” he said.
He then did something that shocked and terrified me. He said, “We can talk over there,” and motioned for me to follow him away from institutional staff and over to a nearby corner. I followed, but not before catching a glimpse of horrified looks from the institution’s leadership.
“What would you like to talk about?” he said, once we were alone.
“Sir, I’ve been incarcerated for almost 20 years,” I said. “You are the first director that has taken an active interest in pushing rehabilitation, and I see the change. I just want to say thank you, because you have made a difference in my life.”
I saw surprise cross his face. He wasn’t expecting what I said. I imagine he was probably expecting to hear some complaint about the institution or staff or about some dark issue. He was genuinely taken aback.
A long moment seemed to gather.
“In what way?” he finally said.
“Well, sir, since you’ve been director, there has been an increase in rehabilitative programs here. A number of staff here believe in what you are doing and it shows. I see it. All of us” –I reached out, making a sweeping motion– “see it. For me, because of you, several staff have gone out of their way to help and encourage me.”
He chuckled, then said, “Well, I wish all my peers believed in what I was doing! There are a lot of people below me who don’t like what I’m doing. But you know what? I don’t care what they think; that’s okay.”
“A few years ago,” I continued, “a staffer here encouraged me to write about my observations regarding rehabilitation [*], because we often talked about this. The fact that he was even willing to consider my observations, let alone encourage me, really surprised me. It broke a stereotype.
“So with his encouragement and the assistance of a number of other staff here, I wrote the first volume of a criminal justice series aimed toward the corrections professional. He credits you for his interest in rehabilitation and helping offenders toward the path of change.”
Director Mohr listened attentively to everything I had to say. He never interrupted me or seemed impatient. We then spend the next 10 minutes talking about rehabilitation. He was very candid and honest with me. He spoke passionately about his vision of reforming Ohio corrections toward and emphasis on rehabilitation. He mentioned the Tennessee model, and was very well versed in other existing and successful rehabilitative efforts nationwide.
“Have you finished your book?” He then asked me.
“I would like to read it. Would you send me a copy? I’ll have my assistant Melissa Adkins give you my information.”
And so she did.
I came away from our talk full of optimism and energy. Our conversation exceeded anything I ever expected, and it was so positive I couldn’t help but wonder if it was too good. Was the director simply humoring me? Did he genuinely believe in rehabilitation and was he genuinely interested in what I had to say about it? If you had asked me these questions that day, I’d’ve said it’s hard to say. However, here in This World, we have a saying: time reveals everyone’s stripes. In the ensuing years as his time as director it became obvious to me that he meant every word he said. He was one of the few who truly understood and truly cared about reform.
Director Gary Mohr ended his tenure as Ohio’s Director of Prisons in 2018, ahead of a new governor coming in, and ahead of a new director, a woman named Ms. Annette Chambers-Smith. Only time will tell if the push for rehabilitation here in Ohio will continue. I remain cautiously optimistic. In her first few weeks as director, Ms. Chambers-Smith has been faced with renewed scrutiny over the Ohio Parole Board in the wake of the high profile resignation of board member and former Ohio senator Ms. Shirley Smith, over her allegations that the board is biased and hampers the rehabilitative mandate. How Director Chambers-Smith chooses to respond to this will affect policy and rehabilitation efforts in Ohio for years to come. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to talk to Director Chambers-Smith someday, because I would tell her many of the same things I told Director Mohr. I would encourage her to continue down the unpopular path of rehabilitation because it works. Everyone benefits from society as a whole to the very men and women who decide to make that change in their lives.
Director Mohr, in a PBS interview during his final days in office, said he only regretted that he was unable to do more, and that many of his efforts were blocked by his peers who did not agree with his direction.
If I could see him again I’d tell him, on behalf of all the families who would be touched by crime but now will never have to know, and on behalf of the families of incarcerated offenders, thank you for making a difference.
*An excerpt of the written work that was suggested and encouraged by the staffer mentioned in this post can be read here.