February 18, 2009

Ninety Days Until My Release From Taft Federal Prison Camp

Yesterday afternoon my counselor called me into her office. The counselors in Taft Prison Camp have the responsibility of assigning job details, approving visiting and telephone lists, and overseeing the sanitation levels of the housing units. When called, I wondered which issue she wanted to speak with me about.

As I walked to her office, I mentally went through the possibilities. For the past several months I’ve worked as a janitorial orderly in the housing unit and my counselor also happened to be my supervisor. I wondered whether she wanted to speak with me about my work performance, or whether my bunk was made up neatly enough.

When I stepped into her office, I realized the meeting was about a different matter entirely. She needed me to sign a form that provided my consent to sit for an interview. A professor from out-of-state was flying in to visit with me, and a film crew would be accompanying her. This was not a typical experience for federal prisoners, and although I had been working on the project for several months, the imminent reality that others would find meaning in my work really struck me. I signed the authorization form.

My meeting with professor Kelly Pope was scheduled to take place on Thursday, which is tomorrow. Kelly is a professor from DePaul University, in Chicago. She is a distinguished academic who teaches both undergraduate and graduate students various courses in the business school. Her interest in my work relates to courses she teaches in ethics.

I came into contact with Kelly indirectly. I have a friend who has built a practice on speaking of ethics, and he introduced my situation to Kelly. She wrote me during my early months of confinement and indicated that providing her students with real examples of ethical dilemmas helped them understand the challenges they would face as they embarked upon business careers. I was happy to contribute by sharing a few letters with Kelly that elaborated on the complications that led to my disgrace.

That initial correspondence with Kelly coincided with some soul-searching that I was doing to cope with my confinement. In order to find my way home, I realized that I needed to make some meaning of this journey I was on through the criminal justice system. My entire adjustment began to focus on steps I could take to reconcile with society. I thought about what I could do to add value to the lives of others. The predicament I created for myself left me with one option, and that was to illuminate the consequences that frequently followed unethical behavior.

I read extensively on the subject, and I undertook a kind of ethnographic study of my own. By default, I became a kind of cultural anthropologist, immersed in this society of felons. Living amongst hundreds of other white-collar offenders, I began collecting data, trying to make sense of the motivations that drove us all from lives of responsibility, respectability, and trust in the vise grips of the criminal justice system. By sharing what I have learned from personal experience and from others, I hoped to add value to society and redeem myself.

Tomorrow, I would begin to bring a public face to my shame. I feel a quiver of trepidation in my stomach, as I realize that I’ll be opening myself on camera. Students will dissect my responses to questions, and some will seek to filet me. Yet I will respond to Kelly’s questions honestly. This contribution may expose me as a symbol of the misaligned values that have corrupted American business. Nevertheless, I accept the opportunity as a challenge. I was once a part of the problem and I cannot dispute or undo the past. Through these deliberate efforts I make, however, I intend to live as part of the solution. My interview with Kelly and the students of DePaul University represents the first of many steps.

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