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.”

-Christopher

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.

-Christopher

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.

-Christopher

 

 

 

 

 

Monsters Exist

So many people have asked me to write about my experience while incarcerated. For a long time I refused. I could not understand why anyone would want to know about what life is like being incarcerated.

Once when I was just a boy, Dad told me that there were no monsters. I awoke one night to something, maybe a sound from within the shadows of my bedroom or a thud from outside my window, what I couldn’t tell you. But whatever it was, it woke me screaming. Screaming as loud as I could.

I remember Dad dashing into my room wide eyed and alert, ready to defend his son from whatever evil was trying to take him. Before I could say anything, I found myself enveloped in Dad’s arms, held close to protect and in that moment I knew I was safe. Dad was here now. He’d said that everything was going to be okay, and that I had a bad dream (what dream? I don’t remember a dream). I muttered something about monsters I’m sure, because I remember him saying, “Son there’s no such thing as monsters. Go back to sleep.” And, since Dad was always right, every little boy knows this, I went back to sleep.

Why did Dad lie to me? For half my life I believed him, that there were no such things as monsters. I tried to convince myself that he lied to protect me from the cold truth of the world. That monsters exist and that they are everywhere. Maybe he had hoped like every father does that his son would be the lucky one and would never have to experience the truth. That in the end things would be okay.

As of this writing, I’ve been incarcerated for a little more than half my entire life. Time has changed my view of the world, and now I think I will write for you. I now understand why people want to know. Monsters do exist and I have found them—all of them.

Dad knew the whole time.

He knew.