Reading the Tea Leaves: What Lies Beyond the Prison Gates?


In this day and age predictive crime is what criminal justice is all about. We sentence criminals to a term of imprisonment, which is often mixed with a term of supervised release or parole, to a degree designed to adequately punish them for their misdeeds. The goal is to punish, rehabilitate, and mitigate risk of recidivism and violations of public safety through monitoring of those released from custody. While research-based approaches make good sense for public policy promulgation, what about at the micro or individual level? What is an individual prisoner to do? After spending over ten years in custody, this is exactly where I find myself: staring down the barrel of the last two years of my incarceration, wondering what will become of me.

I came to prison at the ripe old age of twenty following a conviction for indecent liberties with a minor. I had had sex with a girl from my school at a party. I was over 18 and she was under. Make no bones about it, I was guilty of the offense and accept full responsibility for my actions. For the offense I was sentenced to probation, which I promptly violated by having underage pornography on my computer. I was a senior in high school, and I was about to go on the most terrifying ride of my life. . .up to that point.

Sentenced to 15 months in state prison as a result of the probation violation my time was anything but typical. Housed at two "gladiator schools" -- prisons for those aged 18 to 24 years old -- I had a lot to learn about the underbelly of society. From respectable, white suburbia to the North Carolina Department of Corrections (which has now been rebranded the North Carolina Department of Public Safety) I had a lot of growing to do.

Prior to prison I couldn't even remember my last fight; which most likely consisted of some type of shoving match. In prison I learned what must be learned: how to fight, how to dodge a lock in a sock, and how to respond with brute force because that was what was required to remain relatively safe. Now that's a concept to learn: initiate violence to prevent future violence. That one left a bad taste in my mouth.

After my 15 months were up I had a surprise guest: two U.S. Marshals standing at the prison gate. They took me into federal custody to be tried for the child porn on my computer; the porn that had resulted in the violation of my state probation. Little did I, or my parents, know how draconian the sentencing scheme would be. After 10 or so months in county jail, I was sentenced to 151 months in federal prison. This was the bottom end of the recommended sentencing guidelines. According to state sentencing guidelines at the time, if the crime had been prosecuted at the state level, I would have faced a maximum of six additional months in prison.

It's been about eight years since that sentence was handed down and around 11 years since that fateful party when I had relations with the girl from my school. In that time I've worked hard to not only make amends for my criminal offenses, but to better myself so that I can leave the seedy world of crime and criminals behind once released. I've also engaged in substantial drug abuse treatment in an effort to put that demon to bed, too. In this time I have availed myself of every meaningful educational and rehabilitative opportunity available. By the end of 2017 I hope to even earn a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (with a focus on Legal Studies) from Adams State University. But even with all of this treatment and education -- opportunities others have not partaken in -- I feel positively scared of what is to come.

As I prepare for release I try to read the tea leaves. It's not a matter of existing, as I know that I will never go back to crime or drugs again, but about living with some semblance of respect. As I take a mental inventory of my abilities and, in particular, as I compare those abilities and skills with my peer group "on the street" (as they say in prison parlance), I feel as though my status as a felon and, even worse, as a sex offender will keep me from accomplishing what I set out to.

Luckily for me, I have strong family support, and I have gained a reputation as a talented jailhouse litigator and prison activist, something I hope to use to my benefit as a prison consultant. But even that seems like a long shot due to the steep competition already out there. It seems as though even the best of us, if I can be so bold as to claim that I've done something remarkable in prison, have quite a stacked deck against us. This seems to just reify the common assumption that most of us will fail. After all, that's exactly what happens. And at times like these I have to wonder not only what makes me different, but what I'm going to do to ensure that this doesn't become part of my story, as it will most certainly become a part of some of my peers.

Staring down the barrel of my final two years in custody -- which is a pathetic statement considering how the United States continues to issue such draconian sentences -- I have begun to think a lot about my future. I have begun to try to put plans in place to help me succeed. But regardless of this, I still feel as though the deck is stacked against me; as if there aren't that many opportunities or open doors for me. But in this moment of mental failure (and a certain amount of situational depression), a thought comes to mind. If the stars already write that I will fail (at least as far as professional success, as I will NEVER return to crime), then why not shoot for the stars? Why not jut out my chin and push into whatever area suits me best? And with this I come to the idea of going to law school after I'm released. Does the idea appeal to me? Actually, it really does. Do I have a chance in Hell of getting in and becoming a lawyer? Probably not. But others have come before me and have done so. As such, if I'm already expected to fail, why not shoot for the stars and choose not to limit myself as the world already most certainly does.

And this is where I find myself today. Staring down the barrel of my final two years in custody, pondering law school, and knowing that if I don't believe in myself that I'll never make it. It's clear, at least to me, that if I don't try I will simply be another statistic, doing what everyone expects me to do anyways: fail.