The inmate I can't forget: I thought prison inmates were the dregs of society, until I became one of them

We were sick people struggling with addiction; but Mike paid much more dearly for his choices than I did

Published December 29, 2015 11:00PM (EST)

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Bread and water.This was dads response to my question about what prisoners ate. My childhood inquisitiveness was probably piqued from viewing a cartoon with men in black and white stripes toiling away on a chain gang. For years I thought that was the ultimate punishment for those serving time behind bars: dry, crumbling grains with lukewarm water. And I thought they deserved it. I thought that inmates were the dregs of society, the worst people that must be avoided at all costs. They were the men who tried to lure children away with large spiraling lollipops. They wore large overcoats, never shaved, and had yellow teeth with several metal caps. They were easily discernible, and were you to encounter one of these monsters, you would immediately know.

Over time my perception of prisoners changed, but not considerably. They were still the dregs of society. The mental image of an overcoat was replaced by skin coated with tattoos. Mainstream media didnt help. Shows like Americas Most Wanted,and Copshelped solidify my impressions. A judgment-fueled conception about criminals helped me feel safe and better about myself. Little thought was dedicated to that far removed aspect of society. In my mind, prisoners still deserved bread and water.

Years later I got to taste the incarcerated diet, and ironically it was extremely well balanced, probably more so than anything I had consumed since leaving my childhood home. Our two daily meals consisted of a carton of milk, animal protein, vegetables, and fruit. And there was bread- three pieces to mop up any lingering scraps that still clung to the tray (while the meals were balanced, they were always short on food).

The garb didnt consist of the two-toned jumpsuits as Id once seen. Instead, two pieces sets, tops and bottoms,came twice weekly with clothing exchange. The shirts and pants consisted of thick orange cloth. Many of the articles were very worn out from years of use. A good pair of pants could fetch several commissary items among the inmates who still prided themselves in appearance. I once wore a pair of pants for 6 months because they fit nicely.

But mostly what seemed different were my new peers. At first they fit the stereotypes that I had entertained for most of my life. I wasnt one of them, at least in my own eyes. They did have the tattoos. Some were gang members. Many seemed scary. I kept to myself initially, immersing myself in a literary world on my bunk for the majority of each day. I only interacted if I had to, and even then I kept it brief. But eventually a combination of comfortability and boredom prevailed. My cell became my home, the dayroom my social outlet. Jail became my life, even if it was a temporary one. But most importantly, I made friends. These friendships challenged my concept of what a criminal was, and how the criminal justice system worked. Ultimately, they helped me understand that the larger narratives and policies associated with drug use and crime are not beneficial to helping those with addiction. It was through my friendships and experiences in jail that I learned that the criminology of drug use is flawed, and that the current approach to dealing with drugs via the penal system is antiquated, inhumane, and failing.

The initial person I bonded with was a man I shared a cell with for four months. He was my first real cellmate. Mike had tattoos from head to toe, or more literally, from neck to ankle. The homemade prison ink had faded and run together. Consequently, Mike had almost no exposed white skin. From afar his complexion resembled a graying bird turd. Mike had a lengthy blonde goatee and thinning hair on his scalp. His arms and legs were wrapped in thick layers of old muscle, muscle that was obtained from countless confined workouts. Mike was forty-two and had spent eighteen years of his existence behind a fence, iron-gate, or plexiglass door.

 Ill never forget our first handshake. The loudspeaker barked my cell assignment, OConnor, cell #6,and I sauntered up the stairs to the upper tier. The door clicked open moments before reaching it. Mike stood alert and very present awaiting my entrance. We met eyes and executed an exceptionally formal and silent handshake. It simultaneously conveyed respect and obligation, with a twinge of defensiveness. Years later, I had a similar handshake with a Japanese girlfriends father. Both times I was terrified.

Over the ensuing months, I got to know Mike incredibly well, perhaps better than anyone I had known in the previous few years. Twenty-two hours per day in a six by fourteen foot space will do that. We laughed at each others farts, traded Star Trek books, cooked meals (mostly just top ramen and refried beans), and critiqued the weekly soaps on television.

During a visit with my lawyer, he asked me what the people I was spending my days with were like. He urged me to learn the details of their past. In retrospect, I believe it was an exercise to help me understand how fortunate I was. So at the behest of my lawyer, I questioned Mike about his family.

Mikes upbringing was infinitely worse than mine. When Mike was still in his mothers womb, she had caught his father cheating. Extremely upset, Mikes mother took her two other children, Mikes brother and sister, and sped away from the house in the family car. Down the street the car flipped, instantly killing Mikes brother and sister, and placing his mother in the hospital for the rest of her life. She lost most of her brain function, and only lived through life support. Yet Mike was delivered without any complications. He was raised alone by his father, although his father never recovered emotionally from the accident. Mike said he was a shadow of a man.They visited his mother in the hospital for years, even though she was incapable of registering their presence. It goes without saying that Mike faced challenges that are foreign to most of us. I got the feeling he didnt hit most of the milestones of childhood.

While our familial histories were vastly different, we shared the common bond of addiction. Many of our talks centered upon romancing the drug or reliving an intoxicated adventure. Occasionally, he would caution as to where my life was headed with such behavior, but I didn't heed his warnings. Id generally dismiss such speak with a Yeah, yeahor I know, I know.Then I would ask him to tell another story. I was fascinated by his life. I loved listening to him talk, and the more I learned about his story, the more my respect and fondness for him grew.

Mike had a deluge of court paperwork that he traveled with throughout his incarceration. It was one of the few ways that he could add some resistance to his workouts that the guards couldn't curtail. In other words, Mike would do bicep curls and tricep extensions with loads of legal papers because the prison could not dispose of them. His crimes literally made him stronger.

One day Mike shared some of his paperwork with me. One line in particular hit me hard. It was in brackets and it read: (Defendant laughs). It was Mikes recorded reaction to the judges sentencing of fourteen years in prison. The legal system decreed many, many years in prison and Mike took it in stride. He laughed! I still remember looking at him after reading that line and thinking, This guy is the man. He has got it all figured out. He is untouchable. Nobody can hurt him.I desperately wanted to be like Mike. I wanted to laugh in the face of despair. I wanted to not care.

The problem was that he did care now. He wanted a better life, but it was too late. He had become a reliable person, the type of man that I would trust to watch my children, that I would lend the keys of my car to, that I would have check up on my family if I were away. Yet the wreckage of his past made it impossible for him to move on.

When I met Mike he was serving a 38-month prison sentence for $20 worth of heroin. His previous crimes had made it so any new crime garnered tremendously long sentences. When he was 18 years old he had robbed several video stores to support his drug addiction. He used a gun and a bandana, and was known in the papers as the video store bandit.No one ever got hurt, but the three-month spree was enough to earn him that 14-year sentence. Upon release from prison he immediately went back to prison for a few years. He had been eating at a food court in a Target and seen a bag of cash sitting on the internal banks counter. Someone had left it on the counter after transporting it from a full register. Mike grabbed it and ran. His getaway vehicle was a bicycle; clearly the crime wasnt well thought out. He didnt make it far. His third crime was the possession of heroin. The other two crimes had earned him strikesbecause they were committed in California, one of the few states that still has the three-strike law.

The three strikes law in California was intended to curb habitual criminal offenders by offering increasingly sharp penalties for felons. It was originally passed as Proposition 184 in 1994, and it immediately began placing large numbers of people in prison for extraordinary lengths of time. In that sense, it worked. It did what it was supposed to do, put habitual offenders in prison. However, it failed in every other aspect. It didnt reduce crime. It cost the state (and tax payers) exuberant amounts of money. It overcrowded the prison system. And it didnt even deter people from striking out.

As for Mike, and the 38 month sentence he was serving for possession, it should be noted that this was a very merciful amount of time when compared with the criminals in similar situations who had gone before him. In Mikes case, the judge striked the strike in the interest of justice.What this means was that the judge sentenced him without striking him out. This had become a more regular thing by this period (Mike was sentenced in 2004) because the prisons were becoming so overcrowded with people serving life sentences for possession.

The policy wasnt formulated to warehouse non-violent criminals in prison for drug offenses, and sadly that was what it became, and still continues to be. I learned about the criminology of drug use by living, eating, and breathing with the victims of this failing legislation: those serving long-term prison sentences for drug related crimes.

When someone is in the throes of addiction, forethought and reason dont motivate their actions. I found myself in horrible places as a result of my drug abuse. I was faced with legal predicaments that had the capability of removing me from society for an extremely long period of time. Luckily, I came from a family with resources and was able to have my case heard for all the nuances within it. Had Mike been able to receive the same legal aid that I did, I have no doubt that he would have gotten a much better deal, and ultimately a better life. Intelligent and empathic, he was a man who would have benefitted tremendously from therapy and substance abuse treatment for his drug addiction. Ironically, his only substance abuse treatmentwas incarceration.

The details of my own case are hazy; I have almost no recollection of my crime. I vaguely remember driving around with one of my roommates and asking him to pull over at a veterinarians office. The next thing I remember was waking up in a cell. The robbery I committed was done in a complete blackout. It was not even a subject of debate whether I was in the right state of mind during my crime. I made bail, which was considerable, and spent the next two years of my life as a resident of various inpatient treatment centers while I fought my case.

Eventually I signed a deal for 6 months of jail and an additional one-year of inpatient treatment, with a ten year suspended prison sentence if I violated the terms of my probation. The jail was easy, but the treatment wasnt. I ran away, driven by a compulsion to get high. I didnt care. No thought was wasted on the ten-year sentence that awaited me; I had the same mindset as Mike when he grabbed the bag of cash shortly after being released from prison.  Eventually I was picked up on a warrant and the judge wasnt as amenable as the district attorney had been when I signed my original deal.

But my family came to the rescue. They threw more resources at the problem, hired experts, and got the judge to review my case one more time. He showed leniency and gave me a one-year sentence with a mandate to complete a special type of treatment afterwards. I completed the program, although it took me years before I really made the transition to caring about my life. Yet when I finally made this transition, I wasnt in prison serving a lengthy sentence for a relatively minor offense. I didnt share Mikes legal predicament simply because I had money.

When I went to jail, I thought that prisoners were sociopaths cold calculating people incapable of empathy. I learned that is very far off from reality. Most prisoners end up behind bars as the result of a poor environment, mental illness, or substance abuse. For Mike and I, we were both sick people struggling with addiction who made impulsive choices that cost us heavily, however Mike paid much more dearly than I did.

It has been over ten years since I met Mike, yet I still think about him. He was the first person I knew from a multitude of prisoners who were good people but lost their lives to an overly punitive legal system. It saddens me to think of the scores of men and women across the nation who have little chance at redemption simply because we elect to contain the problem rather than solve it. This depressing fact has motivated me in part to take action in my own life. I returned to school to finish my bachelors degree, and am in the process of applying to doctoral programs in psychology with a concentration in forensics. Strangely, Im attempting to return to the place that I once desperately wished to escape.

By Christopher O'Connor

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