Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fifty-Five Days Until My Release From Taft Federal Prison Camp

I felt sad to have heard a story a fellow prisoner told me.  Bill was serving a three year sentence for a financial crime.  Bill was in his early 40s and relatively new to his prison term.  The sentence he served was not as long as some of the other people in the camp, but Bill was struggling because of conditions he faced at home.

Bill’s parents had been so humiliated at their son’s criminal conviction that they disowned him.  They would not accept his telephone calls.  When he wrote to them, they returned his letters with the marking “unopened and unread.”  They expressed their wishes that Bill never contact them again, and didn’t even want a connection with Bill’s child.

To cope with the trauma of hardship over loss from family, Bill told me that he would wake in the middle of the night to sit alone in one of the bathroom stalls.  Prison did not have any place where a man could expect complete privacy, but closing oneself into the bathroom stall could provide the illusion of privacy.  Bill said he would just sit on the commode and mourn the loss he felt.

I could relate to Bill’s sense of separation.  I have a close relative on my Dad’s side of the family who expresses hostility because of my imprisonment.  Although we were not particularly close, the rejection pains me because I know that it saddens my parents.  The pain also distresses me some because I don’t like the reality that I am now a bit of an outcast as viewed by some in my family.

I spoke with a friend of mine in prison who served many years.  He told me that at one point, his grandparents had disowned him as a consequence of the criminal conviction.  To cope, my friend said that he first focused on growing up in ways that would redeem his crimes. Five years passed before he healed the wounds with his grandparents, but the family bond had been restored.

When I counseled Bill, I explained to him what I had learned from my friend  Although his parents were troubled now, he could redeem his actions over time and restore the relationship.  A criminal conviction can challenge  family relationships, as law-abiding citizens don’t like to feel the stigma of a troubled name.  Those who struggle through the system can serve themselves and their family members well by seeking first to understand, then to be understood.  Rather than striving to explain or excuse the behavior that led to a clash with the criminal justice system, the more prudent choice may be to understand that time and deeds can heal the wounds or humiliation that are ancillary to a criminal conviction.

I know that I am blessed to have had the loving and generous support of my family.  Other prisoners are not always so fortunate.  To bolster their spirits, I urge them to focus on how they want to emerge and redeem themselves.  It’s a better approach than serving time by the hour.

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