Monday, February 19, 2018

11th Street

I finished the Austin Marathon yesterday. It was a new course, with plenty of hills. Perhaps with some twisted delight, the race planners routed the final half mile up 11th street from Red River. This 80-foot climb over a mere three blocks caused fits of rage or tears as fatigued runners turned the corner to see the daunting climb standing between them and the finish line.

I had decided to follow my coach’s advice and adhere to a carefully planned race strategy. I would dial back my effort on early hills to save my legs, increase my pace modestly during flat portions of the race, and close the last few miles at an ambitious speed while retaining some energy for the final hill.

I imagined myself charging up 11th street. This was not an unrealistic goal, having followed a strict training regimen that pushed me beyond my limits. I had increased my long-run distance to 24 miles, learning to close at marathon goal pace on painfully fatigued legs. I did speed drills on Wednesdays, and woke up early on Mondays to conquer 12-mile runs before work. The training cycle confirmed what I already knew about myself: I am a disciplined and goal-driven person, whether in training or at my job.

I possessed these qualities throughout my life, even though I believed the opposite for many years. Somehow, I had come to view myself through a prism of shame. The messages I told myself sabotaged every goal. Shame stole my resilience, making the challenges of life impact me like a flat tire running over potholes. I look back on that time, and I’m no longer surprised that I descended into anxiety, depression, and addiction. 
No one can endure self-loathing without eventually breaking.
This is how I spun out of control and committed crimes that landed me in prison. I don’t excuse my actions, but I do understand them. I met countless men whose self-image had been similarly corrupted. The lucky ones met kindly people who helped them to shape a new story about themselves, a story that opened the door to their true potential. These men weren’t “rehabilitated” so much as they were awakened.

It’s important for me to make that clarification, because there is a belief in our culture that prison has the power to rehabilitate. There has never existed an intervention where heaping shame upon a broken person leads to positive transformation. Yet, the predominant mode of human interaction between correctional officers and incarcerated individuals is the degrading of human dignity. There are decent people working as correctional officers, but they inevitably quit. 
Texas prisons have one of the highest turnover rates of any state agency.
Harsh treatment was the norm. I remember one female Sergeant who worked as the risk management officer. One day, she and another female officer stationed themselves in sight of the changing tables outside of the mechanical building where I worked. The mechanical bosses were required to strip search us before returning to the main unit, so she decided to monitor the strip search. She and the other female officer laughed wickedly as she’d call out orders to the bosses: “Hey, you didn’t make him spread his cheeks!”

As part of my race strategy, I decided to name 11th Street after her. Whatever else happened during the race, I was going to run every step of that tortuous hill as fast as I could. 
She was not going to be an obstacle that caused me to limp towards the finish line.
Things did not go according to plan during the race. The temperature was in the 50s with humidity levels above 85%, risking both hypothermia and dehydration. I managed to conquer the first 22 miles a bit slower than my goal pace; but I still had hope of achieving a personal record. Suddenly, a wave of nausea slowed me, and I began shivering and sweating profusely. I pressed on for another mile but had to stop. I sat down and vomited on the grass next to me. I knew that I was dehydrated, and that continuing to run the final miles would be risky.

But 11th Street was only two miles away. I got up, disoriented, and began to run slowly. Somehow, I made it to the last water station and forced down some water and electrolytes, which caused another wave of nausea. I pressed on, even finding some speed for the final half mile before 11th.

I turned onto the hill and saw my wife. She ran next to me, and we bounded up the hill together. As the finish line came into sight, the clock indicated that I had 40 seconds to cross the line to beat my personal record. I managed to sprint the final distance in 20 seconds. I received my medal, and struggled to the medical tent where they wrapped me in a hypothermia blanket and helped me to take in fluids.

I know that I’m capable of doing more marathons, but there are so many other hills to climb. This year, I’m building a coalition to transform how local communities respond to drug use. I’m part of the JustLeadershipUSA 2018 Leading with Conviction cohort, where I’m learning to draw out the leadership potential in others. Maybe I’ll do my first Spartan Race this year. 
Whatever my next goal, I’ve put 11th Street behind me.   

Monday, June 12, 2017


My Friend,

I was heartbroken when I heard the news. The anguish you must feel right now may seem to be more than you can bear, but you are not alone. I know that sitting in a segregated cell, far away from the people you love, not knowing when you will breathe free air again, is the jailer’s way of compounding hopelessness.

I want to remind you that you are still the person who worked with all your heart to recover from addiction. You took an honest look at yourself, and determined to become a man your sons can admire. You didn’t blame your chaotic past for you actions; although, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had.

Your family was no stranger to addiction, and the men in your life pretended to be outlaws. They ripped through the lives of others without regard for you. You deserved better, and they deserved better from the men who came before them.

Yet, you decided to break the cycle. You had five more years to serve in prison, but you acted as though there wasn’t a moment to spare. I admired you for pursuing a degree. It was a goal that few of your friends had ever considered.

You had to subtly step away from the people in your circle who remained hell bent on outlaw ways. I didn’t fully appreciate until later how difficult that must have been for you. Where you come from, turning one’s back on a friend, no matter how destructive that person may be, is a nearly unforgivable betrayal. I respect you all the more for trying to break away. I now understand how challenging it must have been for you to return home to the social circles of your youth.

This may come as a surprise, but I know how you feel. I was also given a second chance at freedom, only to relapse - spinning out of control, committing dire criminal acts to remain high, desperately trying to avoid the sober realization of the damage I had done to everyone I loved. I have never in my life felt so alone.

I also know how afraid you must be right now. We live in a society where it’s easy to throw someone away. This is how the criminal justice system is designed. Specialty courts, jail/prison diversion programs, pretrial interventions – these are alternatives to the norm. 
The truth is that courts process cases, not people.
This is why the average length of sentence for those sent to prison in Texas is more than 19 years. There are prosperous and democratic countries in the world where it would be unthinkable to send someone away for more than 15 years, no matter how egregious the offense.  In those countries, they never give up on rehabilitation, even for those people that Texans casually refer to as “the worst of the worst.”

I want you to know that you are worth more than that. You made a serious mistake. So did I. There will be a consequence for that mistake, and it may be years before you can fully make it right. But, there must also be a path to redemption. 
A system that metes out punishment without also creating a pathway to rehabilitation cannot be called justice.
I’m writing this not to cause you more despair, but to remind you of who you are - courageous, determined, and responsible. I want the people in charge of processing your “case” to see you as a human being with dignity and worth. You have value – to your sons and to your community. Our society loses nothing if the court determines to send you to long-term intensive treatment instead of another decade in prison; 
and what we gain when you succeed is beyond measure.
Your Friend,


Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Mail Call

December, 2016

My Friends,

As I prepare to celebrate another Christmas out here in the "free" world, a flood of memories rise up in my mind.

I remember the night before my sixth Christmas in Prison. The officer arrived in the late afternoon with the last bundle of mail until after Christmas. Most of the men crowded near the duty station, hoping to hear their name called. 

Receiving a card or letter could lift one’s spirit for days, especially around the holidays when homesickness was heaviest. But receiving mail means so much more for people in prison than a mere balm on the pain of separation. Hearing one's name called fulfilled a longing to be remembered and forgiven.
A Christmas card was like a promise that we would be welcomed home, free from shame.
One of my friends didn’t receive any mail that Christmas. His estranged father had died months before, and his mother died decades earlier. His brother was in another prison in South Texas. He so rarely received any mail, that he never bothered to join the crowd near the duty station when the bundle of mail arrived each day. He was very much alone.

This was his fourth stint in prison, always for property crimes to feed his addiction; yet, his incarceration struck frustrating chords of injustice inside me, as though a bright child had been harmed and discarded. Just like most people I met while in prison, incarceration was a detour off the intended path for his life. His mother and father had split while he was still a toddler, and he had to endure a series of increasingly abusive step-fathers before leaving home. He had learned to survive on his own, becoming a whiz at repairing any device powered by an electrical current.
Sadly, the pain and anger of his boyhood had created an unloving inner landscape where he couldn't find peace inside his own skin.
We became unlikely friends. We shared little in common when it came to our past lives and interests; but our inner worlds could not have been more alike. I related with the way shame and anger coiled lethally inside him, and understood how his past drug abuse was the way to cope with these painfully complex emotions. I admired the remarkable ways he had learned to survive. His selflessness humbled me, and his sincere efforts to overcome the destructive pattern within him truly inspired me. When the officer had handed out the last letter, I went to sit next to my friend. I told him how glad I was to be spending Christmas with him.

As I write about my friend, I realize that I’m writing a similar story about so many of the people I met while in prison. My friends in prison emphasized the need to take responsibility for the pain we had caused others, but their stories taught me something deeper about compassion.

"Compassion is defined as a keen awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a desire to see it relieved. People hurt others as a result of their own inner strife and pain. Avoid the reactive response of believing they are bad; they already think so and are acting that way. They aren't bad; they are damaged. -Will Bowen 
I think that is the deeper call of the exhortation to "Remember Those in Prison."

Remembering my friends in prison creates a vision for a world where justice is redefined:
It’s a world where we see crime as evidence of brokenness; 
Where holding people accountable also means helping them find their true potential; 
Where people never need to wear handcuffs to get help for addiction and mental illness; 
Where investments in "public safety" actually strengthen communities rather than tear away the human capital communities need to thrive.
Christmas is named for someone who exhorted His followers to remember those in prison, so I thank you for letting me share these memories with you. 

I hope that you'll receive this letter before Christmas, and know that all of you are remembered, worthy of forgiveness, and free from shame.



Friday, December 2, 2016


It seems that media coverage of criminal offenses and irredeemable “criminals” dominates local news, giving a strong impression that crime runs rampant and those who commit crime are incapable of becoming productive members of our community. The truth is far more complicated. Most people commit crime due to a variety of factors including substance-use disorder, mental illness, and past abuse; factors that can be addressed through strong rehabilitation. 
Tragically, sensational media stories dampen public support for rehabilitation; and create massive barriers as people with criminal histories try to rejoin society.
Considering these barriers, it is extraordinary when people with past criminal involvement manage to chart a productive life in the community. These stories are not nearly as rare as people think, and they are deserving of the same level of coverage local media grants to the “crime of the week.”  A great example is Reginald Smith, who will be graduating from the University of Texas at Austin on Saturday, December 3rd.

Reggie was sentenced to prison five times in his adult life, the last stint for nearly six years. Like many of the people he met while in prison, he struggled with substance-use disorder. Finding limited rehabilitative resources in prison, he continued to struggle each time he was released to stay sober, find a job, and rent a place to live. 
Against the odds, Reggie kept working towards recovery from addiction both in prison and out.
After his last time in prison, Reggie connected with the local recovery community. Determined to stay out of prison, he became a house manager at a sober-living home. He stayed sober. He enrolled in the University of Texas to earn his Bachelors in Social Work, and quickly became a leader on campus. He served in the UT Center for Students in Recovery and championed efforts to create opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Because of his work, Reggie was awarded a fellowship from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health to advance public policy that will promote substance-use disorder treatment and mental health care to divert people from jail and prison.  He is an invited speaker and recognized leader among those with a lived history of mental illness and criminal justice involvement. He is also a mentor to those who are striving for recovery and a productive life despite the stigma and shame of a criminal record.
Reggie graduates Magna Cum Laude with his Bachelors in Social Work this weekend. He was selected by the student body to give the commencement address. His journey inspires countless people who have been discarded by society because of past mistakes.
 NOTE: I alerted contacts in both print and visual media about Reggie’s story. As of today, December 2nd, no reporter had picked up the story; so, I decided to post on my blog. I appreciate readers sharing this post with others.  Thanks!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Labor Day

I grew up watching the television program M.A.S.H. One of my favorite characters was “Radar”, the unassuming clerk with an uncanny ability to sense incoming casualties well before the sound of helicopters could be detected by human ears. He could anticipate the commander’s orders before they left his lips, and often had work completed before anyone else knew it was needed.

In prison, I met someone exactly like Radar. He was the gas garage clerk for the large mechanical shop where I was assigned. The department managed the entire fleet of gas-powered vehicles for the largest prison system in the country, and my co-worker seemed to know the mechanical history of nearly every vehicle in the fleet. You could give him the six-digit vehicle number, and he’d be able to tell you where it was assigned as well as its maintenance schedule.

During my time in prison, Texas cut state agency budgets dramatically, and prohibited the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from purchasing new vehicles. The departmental bosses relied so heavily on my co-worker to anticipate repairs before they were needed that they were able to keep vehicles with more than 400,000 miles on the road long past their life cycles.

I learned that the man had the same standard in his personal affairs as he did on the job. He volunteered in the Chapel and was a leader in the 12-step community. He practiced the principles of recovery, treating people with dignity and volunteering to help anyone seeking to recover from addiction. He became my mentor and my trusted friend. 
My friend was serving a 40-year sentence for stealing a package of cigarettes. 
He had experienced a traumatic childhood, and struggled his entire life with addiction. He had been arrested twice before for burglarizing vehicles, always to feed his addiction. After his second release from prison, he was able to stay sober for nearly five years before relapsing. On his last night of freedom, he pocketed cigarettes from a convenience store and fled in his car as the clerk ran after him to get his license plate. The prosecutor decided to charge him with robbery instead of theft, and claimed that my friend’s car was a deadly weapon because it could have harmed the convenience store clerk.

My friend refused to characterize his circumstance as injustice. He took responsibility for all of his mistakes, and believed that his work ethic and personal standards needed to be higher than anyone else’s if he were to be of use to others. 
It didn’t matter that he wasn’t paid anything for his work behind bars; he just needed to know that his efforts were valued by others.
He was not alone. During my time in prison, I met countless men who were driven by the same motivation. I will never forget the look of determination on the cook’s face when the kitchen boss allowed him to prepare chicken Parmesan for nearly 1600 men using frozen chicken patties and the limited ingredients available in prison. He beamed with pride when he returned to the cell block after a twelve hour unpaid shift.

In the mechanical shop, I knew a transmission expert who was small enough to fit into the engine compartment. He had no qualms about getting covered in grease and climb into the engine in order to avoid having to send a vehicle to an outside shop for a costly repair. Similarly, maintenance workers gladly sprang from bed in the middle of the night when called upon to fix toilets or electrical issues. Working around these men taught me to value my work in ways that I never had before.

Prison officials and state leaders often taut the occupational opportunities available to people in Texas prisons, framing them as an essential to rehabilitation. What is missing in this narrative is the fact that prisoners are doing the work of keeping the prisons operating, prisons that wouldn’t need to exist if we were to adequately address the factors that lead to crime in the first place.

The reality of Texas prisons is one of incapacitation, not of rehabilitation. People like my friend were thrown away by their communities; men who would have otherwise been productive members of the community had they had an opportunity for treatment or vocational programming. It should come as no surprise that Texas ranks near the bottom in terms of substance abuse treatment availability, yet ranks number one in the number of state prisoners.

I was proud to get to work alongside these men. They taught me to rise to the highest standard, even when there was no reward. It pains me to think about their children who will grow up without getting to learn from the example these men set for me. 
When I think about the human resources locked away behind our prison walls, I think of Texas as one of the most wasteful states in the entire world. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Father's Day

No one wrote to me more faithfully during my nearly six years of incarceration than my father. I remember his first letter shortly after my arrest. He was shocked and heartbroken, not able to reconcile my criminal actions with my true character. He said he was horrified by what I had done, but that the real Doug would never have done such a thing. He attributed my crimes to addiction.

I took his words as a sign of grace and generosity. He had forgiven me the moment he heard the news. In truth, he probably blamed himself.

My father had left our household while I was still a child. Years before, his own dad had abandoned his family, and his mom later married an abusive man who tormented and bullied my father throughout his childhood. My father carried unhealed wounds into adulthood, so he never felt completely at home in his own skin. When I was in the 6th grade, he removed his wedding ring and moved into a small one-bedroom apartment across town.

His departure was so devastating, that I also carried unhealed wounds into adulthood. Like many children of divorce, I blamed myself. I wore the anguish visibly, making me an outcast among my peers. Adolescence was an internal prison, worse than any of the 109 facilities scattered across Texas. When I discovered drugs and alcohol, life seemed to improve. I had no idea that I was watering a toxic seed that would one day lead me to real prison.

I never met a man in prison who didn’t also carry childhood wounds related to fatherhood. At the mere mention of fathers, men grew serious. Otherwise hardened men talked of abandonment, disappointment, or abuse. Even those whose fathers were consistent and loving shared feelings of deep shame for having disappointed their dads so gravely. Talking of fatherhood also reminded men of their own children.

More than 68 percent of the men in Texas prisons are fathers, and there is little question that incarceration has a terrible effect on the well-being and healthy development of their children. The loss of financial support increases the likelihood that children will live at least a portion of their childhood in poverty. Also, a significant number of the incarcerated parents actually lived with their children at the time of arrest, disrupting their lives in ways that have lifelong consequences.

I was often shocked by the number of men in prison who had children serving time in other units. On the unit where I served most of my time, at least two men shared cells with their fathers. I will never forget the tears of my cell mate when he learned that his adult son had committed his third felony and was being sent back to prison on a life sentence as a habitual offender.

He didn’t blame his son, nor did he blame a system that fails to adequately rehabilitate men during early interactions with the criminal justice system. Instead, he blamed himself and his own failings as a father.

I came to understand that there was a difference between taking responsibility and taking the blame. Taking the blame is a helpless response that originates in shame. Heaping shame upon oneself or another denies the possibility of change.

Probably the most tragic element of the criminal justice system in Texas is the extent to which it is steeped in shame. It is a system that refuses to acknowledge the problems at the root of criminal involvement, and allows us to write people off as irredeemable. It allows the officers of correctional control to dehumanize incarcerated individuals, often entrenching them in destructive mindsets.

The men that I met in prison were not irredeemable. They carried the unhealed wounds of childhood, and cycled in and out of the courts as they encountered a state jail and probation system that set them up to fail.

The men who overcame this viscous cycle were those who cast off the shame and took responsibility for their own rehabilitation. They began taking classes or volunteered in the Chapel.  Along the way, they met unlikely allies - usually fellow inmates - who helped them to see that they were more than the worse thing they ever did. These men became like father figures to those who had never known a father.

I gravitated to these people from the start, following their example. I volunteered as a peer educator, working to end the culture of violence inside prison. I volunteered in the Chapel and in the 12-Step meetings, becoming a mentor and ally to others. I felt as though my life were starting over, and I began to see that I could one day be a decent father to my own daughter.

My father celebrated whenever he received a letter from me. He saw me taking responsibility for the crimes I committed and becoming a man on whom others could rely. Midway through my fourth year in prison, my father came to visit me. He had lost weight and appeared frail, but his face lit up when he saw me. During that two hour visit, he looked me in the eye and said, “Doug, I’m proud of you.” I never saw him again.

One year later, my father died. I was still in prison and unable to leave for a funeral. The Chaplain allowed me to call my Step-Mother, and she shared the news with me. I walked out of the Chapel numb, holding back tears until I could reach my bunk.

I berated myself for not being with my father during his battle with cancer. I thought of how I was depriving my own daughter of a father in her life, and shame welled up inside. It occurred to me that I was repeating the toxic pattern. After a day on my bunk, I got back to work doing the things that had made my father so proud. Six months later, I was paroled.

Today, I get to be a father to a beautiful daughter. I never use the language of shame with her, either toward myself or anyone else.  I don’t even use that language toward the system itself. I believe people can change, even those who want to keep the criminal justice system exactly as it is.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Visitation List

I remember the last time that I saw my daughter before I committed the crimes that would land me in prison.  I dropped by the townhome where she lived with her mother, hoping for an hour with my daughter before she left for a weekend trip to her grandparent's house. When she saw me getting out of the car, she ran to me, literally jumping into my arms. 

It was Halloween weekend, so I bought her a little present. It was a pink Hello Kitty watch. My daughter had recently celebrated her fifth birthday, and had never worn a watch. She barely noticed the gift, and beckoned me to help her draw shapes with colored chalk on the sidewalk. When it was time to leave, tears welled up in her eyes. She began to sob. It was is if she knew that something bad was about to happen. Children of people with addiction seem to be more acutely aware of the tormented waves roiling within their parents, even when their parents try desperately to hide that inner turmoil. 

I wouldn’t see my daughter again for five years, seven months, and twenty-nine days, and I counted every one of those days.  Her mother allowed letters and phone calls, but wisely refused to expose my daughter to the insanity of prison. The two hour contact visits are often tortuous for children.

Visitation rooms are crowded and loud.  Officers hover on both ends of the room, observing closely for illegal contact or passing of contraband.  All parties are required to stay at their assigned tables, and small children grow restless.  I never had a visit where I didn’t hear a crying child.  Children aren’t allowed to grab their parents’ hands and take them to go paint chalk dragons on the sidewalk. 
In short, visitation rooms aren’t places where children are allowed to be children.
Even if I had experienced a visit with my daughter, it wouldn’t have helped her to cope with the absence of her father in her life. I still missed her first day of Kindergarten, and couldn’t read books to her before bed. I couldn’t help her to deal with the anguish and confusion she felt when she wondered where her father had gone.  I couldn’t assuage the fears of separation that haunted her during the years I was away.  I couldn’t share with her the gifts of healing I was experiencing as I began to recover.  When the judge sentenced me to prison, she sentenced my young daughter as well.

Few people question what we expect in terms of visitation. When I was in county jail, I had to visit with my mother on a video screen. I couldn’t even hug her or look her in the eye, because the camera was located above the screen. Years later, I was shocked to learn that this had become the only way for families to visit loved ones in more than a dozen large Texas counties. This fact made me grateful that the prison system at least allowed for two-hour contact visits. 

But even the two-hour visits deprive families of the right to be a part of their loved-one’s lives. It should be understood that frequent and meaningful contact with family members is essential to rehabilitation and successful reintegration upon release. It is also essential for children. More than 40 percent of incarcerated males and 80 percent of females had children living with them at the time of arrest. 
Incarceration should never be the reason that children lose frequent access to their parents, and it is a tragic mystery that our society ever allowed prisons to become such closed systems. 
The Texas Senate will soon study prison and county jail visitation policies. This may be an opportunity to call into question the closed system we call prisons. With 109 prisons in every region of Texas, it is unconscionable that an incarcerated individual would be sent to a prison more than two hours from home.  Yet, prison classification officials routinely place men and women in facilities that are six to eight hours away from their closest relatives. Elderly parents with disabilities must get notes from their physicians in order to appeal for their sons and daughters to be moved to a unit closer to home. 

It is also time that we treat visitation as part of the rehabilitative process, for both the incarcerated individuals as well as their children. Families must have frequent and meaningful contact with their loved ones in environments that allow children to be children, yet only one state has a child-friendly visitation area. Less than ten states have overnight policies, and few of these policies are geared toward overnight stays with children. Few state prison systems include family contact when developing rehabilitative programs.  How do we expect incarcerated men and women to become fully productive members of communities within the very families that will support them upon release? 

The First Time I Saw My Daughter After Nearly Six Years
A closed prison system is not an ideal model. The entire period of incarceration should be geared toward moving the individual from intensive early services to gradually increasing community integration. Families must be part of this process at every step, with easy access to loved ones.  Nearly 95 percent of Texas’ incarcerated individuals will return to the community, so they must begin preparing people for release from day one.  Visitation is a critical part of that process. 

I finally saw my daughter the day after I was released. I heard the knock on the door, and nearly flew down the stairs. My daughter barely had a moment to see me before I lifted her off the ground and hugged her. She grabbed my neck and I heard her crying happy and nervous tears. I looked at her face, and realized that she was still a child. My child. 
Unlike so many children of incarcerated parents, my daughter will get to enjoy a significant portion of her childhood with a loving and active parent in her life. 

Resources and Citations

Youth Rise – A mentorship program for children impacted by parental incarceration.

Storybook Project – Connecting incarcerated mothers with their children.