It Could Be Worse: 74 Years Plus Two Life Sentences

JugendstrafvollzugAddiction has destroyed so many lives and families. Whenever I think of how difficult the road to recovery is for my son, and we start to despair, I remind myself and him:

It could be worse. At least he still has this opportunity. Some don’t.

The son of a family friend whose downfall was drugs is now serving 74 years plus two life sentences in federal prison. He spends most of his time in the SHU (Special Holding Unit). If you know anything about the penal system, or have been watching the series “Orange is the New Black,” you know this is the worse place to be incarcerated, reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, in virtual isolation. It destroys minds and bodies. The fact that he has been living there for years is almost unbelievable.

When I knew him he was just a skinny little boy with big brown eyes and a shy sweet smile, a few years younger than my son. I didn’t know him well, but saw him from time to time until his parents divorced and he went to live with his mother and step-dad.

The next time I saw him he was standing on our doorstep at 3 AM in the morning. He wouldn’t tell us what was wrong, but wanted to know if he could come inside and call his father. We were surprised to see him, but of course let him in.

While we were waiting for his father to arrive, we sat on the couch and I made small talk. He was 18 years old, but looked like 14, still skinny, still with the big eyes and shy smile.  It was obvious he was in trouble, but we didn’t pressure him to give us details. He seemed like a sweet kid, and I hoped that whatever the trouble was, he would be okay.

We learned later that day what had happened. Just before arriving on our doorstep, he had shot his mother and step-dad in a dispute over drugs. Apparently his parents were peddling drugs from their home, supplying their son and using him to distribute the goods. Their son was hopped up on meth and when they had a falling out and wouldn’t give him what they owed him, in an angry fit, he grabbed their gun and shot them.  His mother died, the step-dad was paralyzed and would spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair.

Somehow he remembered that we lived close by and came to our house to hide out and to wait for his father to come help him.

His lawyer didn’t want to defame the victims, so the fact that his mother and step-dad were drug dealers who had encouraged and benefited from their son’s drug use was never revealed to the jury. He was sentenced to 74 years in prison.

Not long after he was sent away, he wrote to me and we began exchanging letters. I’m not sure why he sought me out. We didn’t really know each other. But perhaps our brief conversation on the couch that night, my kindness to him, made an impression.

At first I enjoyed his letters. He was very articulate and intelligent. He was doing a lot of reading in prison and clearly enjoying what he was learning. But then the letters began to change. He had been drafted into Aryan Nation Brotherhood, was reading all their literature, and was being brainwashed by it. Now his letters were full of white supremacist propaganda.

I did my best in my letters to refute all his arguments and encourage him to stay away from this group. But it was no use. He was fired up and enthusiastic, and he was trying just as hard to convert me. When his language about Jews became increasingly hateful, I knew I could not longer write to him. I mailed him a “Dear John” letter and ended our correspondence. Fortunately, his father and sister and other family members still wrote him, so I don’t imagine he missed my letters.

What I did not know then, nor did he, was that the Aryan Nation was recruiting this impressionable young man with nothing to lose, who desperately needed something to believe in, to be their trained assassin. Or their orders, he murdered an inmate and a guard, earning two life sentences on top of the 74 years.

At that point he realized that he had been used by the Brotherhood and denounced them. Now he was friendless. The other prison gangs already hated him, and those “unaffiliated” feared him, so he was left pretty much alone when he was not being targeted by members of one gang or another. Perhaps that’s why they put him in the SHU. Perhaps that’s why he slashed both his wrists and sliced up and down his arms and legs.

Much to his surprise, and everyone elses, he survived that violent attack upon his own body.

Not long after, his life took an odd ironic twist. For the better.

Resigning himself to life in solitary confinement, he sought to make the most of it. Seeing as how the kosher food served to Jewish inmates was superior to his own, he decided to convert to Judaism. But in order to convince the prison officials the conversion was genuine, he found a distant Jewish relative and began learning as much about the faith as he could. He was fascinated by their long history, their persecution and suffering, and he began studying their sacred texts. His conversion became real.

His father tells us he now wears a yarmulke on his head and his beard nearly reaches his waist. It almost covers up the swastika tattooed across his chest.

I don’t know what this young man’s life would have been like if he hadn’t become involved in drugs. Perhaps he still would have created violent acts. Perhaps he still would have gone to prison.

But I remember him as that sad, shy kid sitting next to me on the couch that night, chewing his fingernails, and looking like all he really needed was a big hug and lots of love to make things right.

I wish he had had a chance to turn his life around.

When I despair of my son’s challenges, I remember: At least it’s not too late for him. We still have hope.

It could be worse.

[POSTSCRIPT: It occurs to me after writing this that I have taken one man’s life and a family tragedy and turned it into a life lesson for myself and my son. The lesson I extrapolated from his story was that everything is relative, and that what seems nearly hopeless for addicts trying to recover, comparatively, is not nearly so hopeless as other cases may be. Therefore, we should take heart, we should recognize the opportunities we have to improve our situation, and not be overcome with all that seems to work against our recovery.

That said, this story of this young man, tragic as it is, has its own thread of hope weaving through it. While his life took such a horrible turn and then grew even worse upon entering prison, at some point, he had the clarity of mind to see that he had been used and the courage to denounce those who had used him for evil, and to choose to live a life of loneliness rather than to be part of that group and way of thinking.

Although overcome with the hopelessness that led him to try to end his life, miraculously, he survived. And in an ironic twist of fate he found in the faith and life story of a people he had once reviled a sense of purpose, and a spiritual practice. I don’t know how his story will evolve, but truly his life story has evolved for the good, even in an atmosphere and under conditions that would severely test any of us. And that, in itself, should give us hope.]

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31 thoughts on “It Could Be Worse: 74 Years Plus Two Life Sentences

  1. Thanks for writing this, D. A really sad thing just happened in my extended family this week, and it’s nice to know that MAYBE there is hope ahead. I don’t know.

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  2. That really is a bittersweet story, full of tragedy but full of hope, too. I’ve seen some amazing things, people I thought were doomed, people’s whose lives seemed hopeless, and than one day I run into them on the street and everything has changed and I can’t believe anybody could ever crawl out of a pit that deep, but they did it.

    Sometimes I think it might be more difficult being on the outside looking in at what people do to their lives, especially people you care about.

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    • You definitely made me smile! 🙂 I hope you know how much I appreciate this. It’s an honor to be nominated. I am going to pass though. I decided not to accept awards for this blog. Many thanks for thinking of me. And for reading and responding to my posts here. That means so much.

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      • I know what you mean, I believe the true award are my readers and people who take there time for a comment as well. Who knows, I might reach that one person sitting on the fence and I might be the inspiration to fight an addiction like smoking!

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  3. Reblogged this on Drinking for a Lifetime and commented:
    Absolutely the most incredible story I have read this year. So moving and yet spiritual in that all that has happened God still loves him and He was able to forgive him. I just wrote a post titled “Don’t give up on your adddict”. We as a people and country need to really start looking at addiction and wage war ( a real war) on drugs. Locking up these young people is not the answer. Its education and removal of drugs from our streets. Providing afordable (free if need be) rehabilitationwould be a start. I so admire you for not giving up. God bless you.

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  4. This story brought quite a lot of anger inside me. The way the justice system is set up is just appalling at very least. The attorney keeping quiet about the parents lack of love, compassion and terrible parenting skills is a disservice to children. The kid was a victim of his own parents and they felt they needed to protect the parents because they were shot by the son they had created. That makes me sick.
    I don’t want to sound like I’m not seeing the bright side to this story- I definitely do and it is refreshing to hear the man has salvaged what life he has left. It is just so sad that society allows drug offenders to be thrown into the rape rooms of America because they have a form of brain damage.
    Thank you for this heart wrenching post and I’m I’m no way angry or upset at you or your post. The post is wonderful and you probably are as well. I just needed to vent some frustrations about the topic.
    I hope your family gets to have the joy and release of long term sobriety. I know I have put my family through hell. Now I hope to repair as much damage as humanly possible by aiding others who are dealing with addiction. Thanks again and sorry for barfing my jibberish all over the place.

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    • I understand your anger and need to vent. I felt this way too when we found out that the attorney had made that decision. They tried to appeal afterward, but nothing came of it. There’s so much injustice when it comes to our courts and the penal system. Real positive change happens so slowly and reaches so few.

      I’m glad to hear that you are working to help others dealing with addiction. We need a lot more advocates like you. Thank you for your service and for your well wishes. And for coming here and venting–it helps all of us who feel the same as you do.

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  5. This is an incredible story. Truth is stranger (and more powerful) than fiction. My heart just go that bit bigger after reading this. I could have been incarcerated for my drinking and driving (or worse, killed someone) but realize just how blessed I am to be out here, trying to help others who have alcoholism too. Redemption comes in many forms, and your story shows that.

    Thank you for this.

    Paul

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  6. I almost never watch TV, but have felt compelled to watch Orange is the New Black and would like to read the memoir for the “real story.” It’s so clear that prisons are extremely unhealthy environments, and it pains me to think of this man ending up in an adult prison at age 18 after making a bad choice that had everything to do with his mother’s and stepfather’s bad choices. By having a gun and drugs in their home, they brought this upon themselves–or at least the risk. What you point out here is that people continue to make choices even when they are in prison, and we can’t just forget about them because they are locked away. Everybody deserves some kind of change to live a better life, even if it is within the walls of a prison. The system needs to tend to the mental health needs of the incarcerated, and there should be alternatives to solitary confinement as it currently exists.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Kelly. Yes, the prison system is horrible, and the court system can be as well. I think his decision to align himself with the Arryan Nation was one of survival. But his choice to leave them was tremendously courageous. And yes, too many mentally ill in prison and on the streets. [I’d like to read Piper’s memoir too,]

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  7. Deborah: What an incredible post, filled with so many poignant details and meaningful questions. I’m glad you were able to turn this tragic young man’s story into a hopeful life lesson for you and your son. As always, your posts and soul searching within them, is deeply touching.

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  8. What the hell was his lawyer thinking! I really hate the American judicial system. It seams to me that it’s full of a lot of hate, mistrust and anger, and very little actual justice. But there does seem to be a lot of vengeance. Of course he got in with a prison gang. He was probably being targeted by other from the moment he walked through the gates…

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      • That doesn’t really surprise me, even in the UK once a judgement has been made it’s really hard to get it overturned. It becomes a matter of principal because laws are made on precedent, which is a big flaw in the whole system, especially when the precedent being set is fundamentally wrong. It’s the whole thing about needing new evidence that I can’t understand. It’s like saying “There’s no way WE could have got it wrong”…

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