My Road to Rehabilitation at USP Hazleton by John Broman, Federal Prisoner #20121-068
This month as part of President Obama’s prison reform efforts the Federal Bureau of Prisons is releasing over 6,000 inmates from their incarceration. Most of these inmates are illegal immigrants and low level non-violent drug offenders. This mass release will open up needed money for resources and reduce a greatly overburdened prison system that is barely teetering on the line of collapse.
Although most of the prisoners will be released from lower security prisons, those of us in the penitentiary are hoping to receive the most from this windfall. Inside the vast complex of federal penitentiaries in the BOP we are the prototype that defines the warehousing mentality. Programs and vocational training courses are non-existent, while confrontations and violence are a daily occurrence. Actually stepping outside for a few hours to breath the fresh air is a blessing we don’t take for granted.
Here at USP Hazelton we have a group of dedicated convicts whose main focus is to change the system for the better. It’s a daunting path with more road blocks then speed bumps blocking the way. The name of the group is “United Circle for Hope.” Hope standing as an acronym for “Helping Our People Excel.” This collective of convicts with decades of confinement under our belts work together with college professors and federal employees towards the creation of programs for the population.
“Our goal is to encourage the system to offer more effective programming opportunities and job skills training for penitentiary inmates.” Says Jeremy Fontanez. Jeremy is a thirty eight year old Puerto Rican from Philly serving a life sentence for robbery, guns, and murder. Although the courts have deemed him too dangerous to return to society, behind the walls he’s the model inmate.
As one of the leaders of the collective, Jeremy has created over seven different programs being taught inside resource centers the group strove to open inside vacant storage rooms in every unit of the USP. Besides teaching classes, ranging from Spanish to Sociology, Jeremy tirelessly helps inmates develop cognitive skills and release plans to reenter a society that has changed significantly for those in long-term confinement.
“The quality of life behind these walls has to change, and it all starts with us. The system you have in your mind is what dictates your actions.” Says Rodman Durham, a forty year old convict from DC serving a seventy year sentence for felony murder.
As the longest tenured think tank member at five years, Durham has been around long enough to see the differences between the administration we try to work with, and the convicts entering the system.
“The ‘us against them’ mentality from both sides does nothing but foster negativity and animosity between the two sides making it very difficult to find a reasonable medium.” Durham says. “For every step forward that we make in developing re-entry programs for a population that has mainly been incarcerated their entire lives, we receive blow back from both ends of the spectrum.”
As “convicts” we’re not supposed to be “helping the man” as some of our peers like to say to us. Ultimatums can be given at any time if another con feels like we’re working to closely with staff. At that point it’s up to us to decide if helping others is worth getting our heads caved in while eating at the chow hall.
As “inmates”, staff feel we’re “over privileged” by being allowed to meet with outside members of the community and sympathetic higher ups. “Inmate hug-a-thug” is how the lead staff member of the think tank describes how most prison officials view think tank members and their collaborators.
“I get shit from my staff for helping the inmates. But what they don’t realize is I’m not helping them, I’m simply providing an opportunity outside the norm.” Says a unit manager with fifteen years experience in the BOP. “I want officers to see that all inmates are human.”
Her viewpoint is far from the average staff member who see us as animals that are here to be broken and dehumanized.
During the thirteen years of my incarceration, I can’t even recall how many times I’ve been subjected to a strip search, or my cell being destroyed with all my possessions thrown on the floor or confiscated. After the molesting is completed, I receive the ‘You know what it is’ grin from my tormentors as I’m left to get dressed or clean up the aftermath.
I am only one of over two million inmates that have felt the wrath of an officer that just had a fight with his wife and is taking it out on those that he’s paid to babysit. In terms of security, those of us that have created and are teaching classes are the administrators best ally. A fact that a lot of staff members don’t give us credit for.
What the think tank has created is education centers inside the housing units where inmates can be productive instead of plotting on those they feel have slighted them.
“I’d rather have twenty inmates participating in a class instead of out stabbing other inmates or officers.” The unit manager says.
For society, what we’re offering to those that will one day be members of your community is far greater. What we’re creating at USP Hazelton is the opportunity for “violent” and “long term” inmates to develop the skills they’re going to need when they do return to society. Rational thinking and resume writing are just some of the classes being taught inside the centers, along with stress management techniques that will hopefully one day stop another life altering decision that will lead back to prison.
“The BOP has to be the nautical star to set change for the entire system. They have to set the tone.” Says Jeri Kirby, an assistant professor at Fairmont State University in West Virginia.
Jeri is our lead advocate and supports us wholeheartedly enabling us to get things done with both the administration here and other resource groups out on the street. She has a vested interest in what’s happening inside the prisons today because she used to be one of us.
Ms. Kirby received a twenty seven month sentence for drug conspiracy in the early 90’s. After her release, she’s worked her way towards a PhD in political science and is one of only three criminal justice professors in the state of West Virginia.
“I thought I’d have to stand toe to toe with the politicians to fight the harsh sentences that came out of the war on drugs.” She tells Gorilla Convict. Jeri has dedicated her post release towards fixing a system that released her with nothing more than a fifty dollar check and the promise of a quick return if she messed up.”The politicians all know the system is flawed. Now they’re all trying to figure out how to get out of it.”
The best place to start this change is through educating and training the incarcerated. Teaching skills to those whose only idea of math is how to weigh up an eight ball, and their only job skill is how to load a gun. The Think Tank at USP Hazelton is a step in the right direction.
Four years ago former attorney general Eric Holder mandated that U.S. Attorneys implement projects and programs to make successful re-entry a priority. Since that time, Betsy Jividen, the First Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia has shifted her focus to efforts aimed at helping us get rehabilitated and ready for release.
“When I first became a prosecutor back in the 80’s, I mostly handled white collar and financial crime, and I honestly didn’t have a problem with the sentences that most of those defendants received.” She tells Gorilla Convict. “Then the war on drugs took off, and with the changes in sentencing laws, all of a sudden, thousands more young people were being sent to jail for so many years – and even for life – families were being ripped apart, prisons became dangerously overcrowded, the goals of rehabilitation and education were side-tracked, and a whole generation of young people seemed to be growing up in prisons while their kids were growing up with one or more parent in jail.”
Mrs. Jividen is the ring leader of our think tank. As an influential, tenured federal employee, she has the clout to lean against the administration that longs to shut us down. She is a respected voice to those that feel the key should be thrown away on those of us that have taken the wrong path in our lives.
“I have been a prosecutor for a long time and I believe that people must be held accountable and pay their debt to society. I also recognize – and voice complaints about – disproportionate sentences and rising incarceration rates, and the bottom line fact that this approach just isn’t working.” She says.
There are many prisoners like me whose time is winding down after serving decades inside a hostile environment. The only things that we’ve been taught is how to make hooch out of rotten fruit and how to fashion a weapon out of everything. The opportunities to turn our lives around are few and far between inside the nations penitentiaries. All of us are tired of prison, and nobody wants to come back inside the belly of the beast.
What the think tank at USP Hazelton is trying to do is set the stage for an implementation for nationwide re-entry prison reform. If we succeed, then families and communities can heal and bond as those returning home become productive members of society.
If we fail…then all the years of our lives behind these walls will have been a waste.