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.]