February 25th, 2017

Everyone in prison has a story. Although, it’s usually what one did not do wrong, there is a story to be told. From Drug Dealers, Growers, and Makers. Medical Professionals, Auctioneers, Education Faculty, Business Executives, prior Law Enforcement, the list goes on. A wide range of crimes with a wide range of people from a wide range of places. Some more innocent acts of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, swallowed up by the monstrous way of the system, to those whose entire life was knowingly committing crimes, and those in between.  A majority of those that come into this camp level prison are with relatively short sentences (comparing to higher level institutions). You must be with less than 10 years to be at a camp for one, and you must be non violent nor of a sexual offense. You could say the better inmates are here at camps. No fence, open movements- never locked into any specific location. Some inmates even go into town to drop off another inmate at a medical facility, or at a bus stop to head home when released. Unescorted, alone, free to do a job in the community. Last year a group of about 10 inmates volunteered for a program to help clean up a local forest preserve. It allowed the opportunity to give back to the community. Unfortunately, the only program here of the sort. There are typically only 1 or 2 guards on duty for this unfenced camp of about 300 inmates. It’s the integrity of each and every inmate here that allows this open system to work. Clearly there is no one here considered a threat to society. All of this in mind you would imagine that I was a bit surprised when I met someone here who was given a Life Sentence.

Yes, Carletos was sentenced to life in 1998 at the age of 26 years old. Natural Life in Federal Prison. His story is a bit different than what some would expect. He was raised in a strong household with his Mother, Father, and Brother. His Mother a Nurse and Father worked at a distribution plant. It was his neighborhood that influenced him in the most negative way. Drugs were prevalent and fast money was being made on street corners right down the block. The lifestyle and the money tempted him. His friends joined gangs, although he never did, it influenced him further. At only 12 years old he began selling cocaine, hiding it from his parents the best he could. He finished high school yet continued selling drugs. One day his luck ran out. He was 19 years old and was sentenced to State Prison for six years. Six years as a penalty for his crime. Time to rehabilitate and cure his problem of selling drugs. He served two and a half. Yet as he says “It was a criminal education to sharpen your craft.” It was actually negative rehabilitation. When he returned home he was more deep into this lifestyle than ever before. Carletos began selling more and continued to increase the volume. He had several dealers who he sold to, moving 10-15 kilos of crack cocaine every week to week and a half. Buying for $16,500 a kilo and selling for double. Bringing in on average $165,000-$247,500 profit every seven to ten days.

The Feds nabbed one of his dealers and his name was given out. They came to his address on record but he had another place of his own. He tried hiding and moving around until one day on a traffic stop he was arrested. He wasn’t caught with any drugs but was facing charges of conspiracy (Aka: ghost dope) to sell 1.5 Kilos of Crack Cocaine. He was given an offer from the Feds to work with them and provide information for a Plea Agreement of 20 years, or to not cooperate and admit to the charges for a 25 year Plea. He went with option three- going to trial to fight it.

It was during a time of “The War on Drugs” when the laws were 100 to 1 for crack to powder cocaine. For example: Whatever the penalty was for 1 Kilo of powder cocaine it was 100x that for the same amount of crack cocaine. Carletos lost his trial- he was given Natural Life in Federal Prison. Meaning he would never be released, he would die in prison.

Then with a great weight from such a sentence he no longer felt big and large. He was still so young in many ways. His outcome was unfathomable. His free life was literally over. He blamed those who were rats for telling on him, the Judge and Prosecutors for being racist, and the system itself for doing this to him. The resentment developed and grew throughout him. Eating him up from the inside out.

About three years into his Life Sentence on one of his visits his Mother came to speak to him. “We raised you better than this. No excuses, when are you going to take accountability of what you have done and let the resentments go?” She gave it to him in the raw. He was 30 years old. He heard what she said but he wasn’t listening. Creating raw discomfort, telling himself it was others who were the problem, not his own. Running from the rawness. Covering up the pain of the truth, going for victimhood. His Mother’s words began to sink in over the next couple years. He thought about his Brother and Father. His Father coached his Brother in boxing, and like in boxing you can lose a round but what is important is to win the fight. This came to him over and over.

He then made a choice. He chose to stop blaming, to get out of his own way, and to better himself. He accepted what he did was wrong, he no longer blamed others, and he was then at peace with himself. Carletos began to wake up each day with a purpose, even though in prison for the rest of his life, to do what he could to be a better man. Over the years he accomplished much. Most importantly is he accepted his choices and began to travel on a different path. He had hope. Hope that one day something for him could change. His family stood by him every step of the way, and his Mother continued to feed him spiritual wisdom.

Together they worked hard to file appeal after appeal. Motion after motion. Trying all they could to get Carletos a shorter sentence. All while taking the experience to heart. To grow and learn from it. Then at 38 years old, 10 years into his Life Sentence in 2008, the drug laws changed. The crack law was no longer 100 to 1. It was changed to 80 to 1. His Life Sentence was reduced to 30 years. He got a future of freedom back into his hands. One day he would be a free man again.

Another miracle, in 2012 the drug laws changed again. His family pulled together again and helped him file for the reduction. He got it. In 2012 he sentence was reduced from 360 months to 292 months. He was 41 years old and the taste of freedom was stronger than ever. He was moved from prison to prison over the years. His final destination- Pekin Federal Camp for the RDAP program (Residential Drug and Substance Abuse Program, the only current program available to earn time off a federal sentence). This is where I met Carletos and this is where he is at right now. Finishing up RDAP in order to better himself further and receive one final reduction of 12 more months off his sentence. He now has 97 educational certificates along with college credits form co-operating Universities. He is due home January of 2018. Less than a year from now.

As I sat with Carletos I couldn’t help but to wonder how he had been affected by such an experience. Some things may seem obvious but when you experience something for yourself, it changes you. Looking at him you see a calm, collected, polite, and respectful man. Its hard to see that such a person could be this way after spending close to 20 years in federal prison. I asked what motivated him? What helped him get through such difficulties, such challenges? Why did he decide to change for the better? He said “God gave me the power to have peace with myself in spite of what I know I did was wrong. I am sorry, genuinely sorry. People can change and I just want the same chance you would want if you were in my shoes. I don’t mind proving myself, I don’t mind proving myself.”

He tells me it was his family support, how they rallied behind him. He now wants the opportunity to reveal to all the new man he is, and what he will do with his life. That is an essential part of why he decided to break free from his old way of thinking. He told me how he sees the negative impact he made and he is ready to go back and be a positive part of his community. Carletos changed from the time he was sentenced to State Prison at 19 years old, using that time to sharpen his craft of illegal activities; to when given Life, taking what could be the most negative experience, and turning it into a positive.

After reading an incredible book “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, it sheds another lightCarlleto’s story. Having no control at all over what occurs- it creates vast mood swings and emotional reactions. It cuts through ego and clears away the self centeredness. Looking at hope and fear, as thoughts arise we follow a set chain of reactions. Getting to know feelings of loss and gain, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. These are the Eight Worldly Dharmas. Four pairs of opposites that we become attached to. Its one of the classic Buddhist teachings. It is when we get caught up in these eight worldly dharmas that we suffer. Its not about avoiding them as they are inevitable, but about accepting. Accepting of the fear of the situation and remain present. To remain, not to run or distract the mind. Carletos became immersed in these four pairs of opposites.

His great gains from big drug deals to the loss of it all. The pleasures from his high lifestyle to deep pains of no freedom at all. Praised by many on the street to then blamed by many of the law. Fame in his neighborhood to a disgrace of his community. He had a motivation to change and a desire for the sake of himself but of others as well. Becoming more insightful and compassionate.

It is humbling to be challenged in ways unimaginable and press on, it takes courage. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” -Buddhist teaching. Things falling apart test us, and awakens in us such things that could forever be sleeping until we face our challenges head on. With the ultimate goal of finding the preciousness in every moment we take a breath.

Jim Vani

Life In Prison
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