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"My association with being a felon is probably the same as most people's: You're dehumanized. There's a stamp on your forehead that says 'you're less than.'" Photo: Natasha Haverty
"My association with being a felon is probably the same as most people's: You're dehumanized. There's a stamp on your forehead that says 'you're less than.'" Photo: Natasha Haverty

Alternatives to Incarceration: Back in the world

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Today, the final part in a series about society's efforts to turn away from long-term incarceration for nonviolent offenders. In Part one, we met Jeff, a college-bound young man from Western New York who fell into serious drug addiction, broke into a pharmacy, and cycled through drug courts and rehab for years before being sentenced to prison.

But instead of serving a four year sentence, Jeff went to Moriah Shock, a bootcamp-style, six-month program in the Adirondacks. We left off yesterday when Jeff was three months away from his release, and feeling confident his time in Shock would help him stay drug and crime-free when he returned home.

"I mean obviously I'm not going to walk around, I'm not going to march around and call cadence, but it helps establish certain discipline that's essential through the program, and this is from the heart, I'm not just speaking to build up the program because I know whatever I say is going to be fine."

In Part three, producer Natasha Haverty finds Jeff back in the world, rebuilding his life and looking ahead.

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Jeff is in the kitchen with his mom, Karen, who'd love nothing more at this moment than to watch him eat a slice of her blueberry cheesecake.

It's been more than six years since Jeff and his mom have hung out like this, just goofing around in the kitchen. For a long time, Jeff, who's 26 and wears black-rimmed glasses, was hooked on prescription drugs.

"You feel like I'll die if I don't have this drug. You may not connect it with death, but it's a sort of death, that you're going to have deal with, this abyss."

Half a decade ago, he was a college student, pre-med, full scholarship. But by his third semester, drugs had swallowed up his life.

"So you wake up you do drugs, within the next couple hours you do drugs to go to class, you do drugs when you get back from class to celebrate that you're done with class…I would look forward to waking up to take drugs to feel good, and I would look forward to going to sleep, to take drugs to feel good before I fell asleep."

Jeff broke into a pharmacy to feed his habit. That led to a felony conviction.

But unlike a lot of drug offenders in America, Jeff wasn't given a long-term prison sentence. He's been given the chance – a few second chances, in fact – to try to get his life back on track.

Jeff spent years in drug court getting government-mandated supervision and treatment. Then he served six months at a "shock" style correctional facility in Moriah, New York, learning life skills to help him beat his addiction.

Now he's back on the street, trying to make those skills work in the real world. Today is Jeff's one-year anniversary of being drug free.

"It's just a good feeling to come back feeling like an outcast and to be accepted. I don't know: maybe there was some part of me I was afraid had been tainted that I wasn't aware of."

Jeff says having that felony on his record feels like a stamp on his forehead. But most people in his new life have no idea.

"I guess you never expect someone to say 'I am a convicted felon.'”

Professor Gamory is the head of the engineering department at the local community college where Jeff started school this semester.

As Jeff's academic advisor, he's also the only person at the college, other than the admissions officers, who knows Jeff just got out of prison. He says you never expect someone to say they're a convicted felon.

"I even said to him it's kind of interesting…I forget the exact term—not scary—kind of interesting, I'm looking at someone who I kind of call a couple steps from being an Einstein, coming here, and starting all over."

In class, Jeff looks a little different from the other students – he's older, he sits a little straighter, he seems to be paying closer attention.

Gamory says he hopes giving Jeff a chance to finish his education will help him re-enter society for good.

"You know, society is kind of funny. People go to jail, do parole, whatever, the supposedly have paid their debt to society; that's not true. They're stigmatized…almost to no end. And I would hope that he would get a chance to live a quote unquote normal life, whatever that is. Or live his—let me rephrase that. I would hope that he would get a chance to live his life."

So far, Jeff says he's avoided telling anyone other than Professor Gamory about his past.

"A lot of the things don't really get brought up organically in everyday life. I go to school, I meet people at a superficial level, and the topic of the worst part of my life generally doesn't get brought up that much."

He says he just doesn't know how people would react—to his addiction, or his time at Moriah Shock Prison. He says he doesn't like lying about it. "I used to all the time. It's just this fake world. Any relationship based on a lie is bound for failure."

Jeff has one friend from childhood, Chris, who does know about his past. For the first time last week, Jeff asked Chris to come with him to one of his group meetings for addiction treatment. Chris says it's like getting his old friend back.

"When you have somebody who struggles with addiction in your life I think the hardest part is forgetting who they used to be, you almost forget what they were like before, like the addict replaces the person? So it's almost like you have lost somebody."

Chris says gets nervous sometimes, thinking about how he could lose his best friend again.

"I suppose there's always that possibility that he could relapse or have a problem. But I think now, he gets it, and I haven't really asked him if he's missed…you know, using? But I think he's pretty happy with his life now and the direction he's going."

According to a 2011 study by the Pew Center, a public policy think tank, the chances of someone like Jeff going back to prison are around forty percent.

To beat those odds, Jeff goes to treatment meetings two or three times a week.

He has curfew as part of his parole agreement, so that he can't be out in the morning earlier than seven or after 9:30 at night.

His parole officer comes by every other month to check up on him.

The truth is, it's taken society half a decade to help Jeff get to this point, with counselors, judges, and corrections officers working to keep him out of prison.

But after half a decade of entanglements with the law, Jeff is mostly on his own now. It's up to him whether he relapses and loses his life again.

"You're not a felon. Not in my eyes."

Back in the kitchen, over a half-eaten cheesecake, Jeff’s mom turns to her son.

"You may have a felony next to your name, but you're not a felon. Not in my eyes. Not in the eyes of the people who love you and care about you, and people that will come to know you. There's a difference. There is a difference between someone who genuinely is a bad person and a threat to society. They're felons. Not you." Crying, Karen adds, "he's a good kid."

If Jeff does slip – if he uses drugs or violates his parole – he could still serve up to four years behind bars. But today at least he sounds hopeful it won't come to that.

"I'm going to class. I look good. I go to the gym religiously, I’m healthy, life is good right now. This is my last chance, and there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of it."

More and more states are working hard at finding ways to keep people like Jeff out of prison. Critics of mass incarceration say locking them up is just too expensive, and the social costs are too high.

Two years ago, the US incarceration rate dipped slightly for the first time in 42 years, in part because of lower crime rates, but also because of new policies sending drug offenders to treatment or other diversion programs rather than prison. But today there are still over a million nonviolent offenders behind bars.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

 

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