My Best Friend’s Struggle to Leave the Big House;

My best friend from high school was let out of prison last week. He’d served 20 years behind the walls.

Walking out of the gates of the federal penitentiaries in Lewisburg and Allenwood, Pennsylvania he felt relief, but also anxiety for the future.

Doug wasn’t an inmate, but a staff psychologist. He’d worked at federal prisons since finishing his doctorate. It was basically the first and only job he’d ever had.

He learned some unusual skills — like how to fire an M-16 and what to do when there’s a riot or a lock down — but in other ways he was ill prepared for life on the outside.

He didn’t have a Gmail address or a smart phone. You cannot use either in prison. We tried to offer some advice to prepare him for re-entry into civilian life. You should check out Facebook, I suggested.

Because he worked as “law enforcement” for the Department of Justice he could retire after 20 years with full benefits. It was a perk the rest of us can only dream of, the kind of sweet deal that probably won’t exist much longer.

I visited Lewisberg 15 years ago and the place left an impression. It has the imposing look of a fortress, as you might expect of a place built in 1932. It is famous for housing Whitey Bulger, John Gotti and Jimmy Hoffa (before he disappeared).

The prison entered pop culture after a 1991 documentary called Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House was nominated for an Academy Award. The film described conditions inside the prison and the concerns prisoners had about re-integrating into society.

Doug took me inside the maximum security facility to meet some inmates. The guards carried these massive sets of keys. For security, no one carried weapons on the inside. The cells were tiny. I felt claustrophobic.

But the inmates were friendly and talkative. A couple proudly showed off their space, explaining that it was a bigger than other cell blocks and boasted air conditioning because they were in an experimental reform program.

I later asked Doug what two of the guys I met had done. One was a serial rapist, he said, the other had killed several people, including a young woman he abducted from a supermarket parking lot.

I had a hard time reconciling the people I was talking to with the acts they had committed.

Murderers aren’t violent all the time, Doug explained. Most of the time they exhibit a similar array of emotions as every one else — such as petty jealousies over who controls the TV remote in the common area. The difference is that they show less ability to control their impulses.

I asked Doug what life lessons he took away from his years behind bars.

First, he said that identifying someone as a murderer doesn’t much help in understanding their character. That doesn’t mean these people weren’t dangerous or shouldn’t be locked up. Just that they are more than their actions. We pigeonhole killers like we do accountants or lawyers.

Second, he said he was struck by how some people refuse to be defeated by even the most hopeless of situations. Because so many at Lewisburg are serving a life sentence — often with no possibility for parole — its hard to imagine how they can remain optimistic.

Doug asked one inmate who had committed two murders why he was bothering with rehabilitation. Don’t mandatory sentencing laws mean he will never get out? Isn’t that discouraging? “Not if you don’t let it be,” the inmate answered.

Finally, he said he gained an appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit. How some people never give up. Doug said that one guard who wanted to switch jobs applied for a transfer 52 times before he finally got the position.

Listening to Doug made me think about my own experience. I’ve worked for the same company for 25 years. I joke that I am serving a “life sentence.”

Talking to Doug makes me appreciate what you can learn by staying in a place a long time. Looking ahead to his “retirement” makes me wonder about the limits. I’m jealous of how much he will grow by leaving the prison.

Doug now has a chance for a fresh start and he is going to take it.

He is moving to Boulder, Colorado where his daughter will attend high school and he’ll be surrounded by mountains, university kids and vegan restaurants. It’s a complete change from central Pennsylvania.

He’s young and has no intention of sitting still.

In fact, he already found a new job he’s slated to start soon.

He will be working in a state correctional facility.

I laughed.

I said that I knew recidivism was high among inmates. I didn’t know it was such a problem for the staff too.

**Published by Ted Merz Jul 30, 2016 **