“THE FACES OF FELONS – DAVID’S LETTER, Part 1” edited by Tony Casson


It has been a long, long time since I have highlighted the story of one of my fellow inmates under the “Faces Of Felons” title. Many of them are not interested in writing about themselves. This particular story is actually taken from a very long letter that one of the men in my housing unit wrote. He didn’t know who he was writing the letter to, or if anyone would actually ever read it. He wanted to plead his own case and express hope that someone could help him, but he also wanted to raise awareness to help others avoid the mistakes he made so they, and their families, might not experience the swath of destruction that has cut through his life, destroying his family and all that they had and all they ever might hope to have.

David is not typical of everyone who is in here for internet crimes involving child pornography. Frighteningly, neither is he unique. David is a simple man who had a life that was built around simple hopes and dreams. His family, his business; His children, his wife; His employees and the obligations he had to them and their families. David is a pleasant man to be around and his inherent goodness is obvious to anyone willing to take the time to get to know him. He demonstrated painful naiveté in the actions that brought him to prison, but he also trusted his government. You will see how that backfired on him as his story unfolds, but the ease with which David’s entire existence was obliterated COULD happen to almost anyone.

I have taken the liberty of breaking David’s story up into parts. It is a long story. It is David’s story and it is very important, not just to David, but to every citizen of this country, particularly those with families. I wish I could guarantee David positive results from his ‘letter’ being printed in these “Chronicles”, but I cannot. Still, we do what we can do, and we pray to Almighty God that HE can cause David’s words to resonate loudly through the homes of America and help David and his family recover some of what they have lost so needlessly, and perhaps save others from losing what they have built for themselves as well. What happened to David and his family could happen to millions of Americans. Most people have no idea how close they are to becoming an inmate in a federal prison.

This, then, is DAVID HAYDEN’S Letter:

To whom it may concern,

My name is David Hayden from Hobe Sound, Florida, a husband and father of three children, and this is the most important letter I have ever written. I have so much to tell you, yet I know your time is valuable. I have been told that no one will care that my family has been destroyed, and though my loss has no importance compared to the responsibilities you must face each day, I still must try, even if there is little hope. If you decide my letter is worthy of your attention, I beg you to understand what has happened to my loved ones and I, and it can easily happen to someone YOU care for. Please do not throw away what I have written, but see if you can help me, and at the same time warn your family and friends.

For years I used a legal software that is also used by over 150 million other children and adults. This sharing network is monitored by, and has been authorized for us to use by, our government since 1993, and allows consumers to receive songs, movies and old TV shows for free. This program does not offer a preview of what you will receive, but gives only line after line of titles and brief descriptions for you to choose from. Unfortunately, not until the file downloads to your computer, and is then opened, do you actually know what the material really is inside. This is due to the fact that very often the material does NOT match the titles or descriptions. Some of those ‘innocent’ titles are attached to some very disturbing material.

The first time I unknowingly broke the law was six years before I was arrested when I opened a movie I had downloaded for my children to watch that was titled “Harry Potter”. Instead of Harry, the file contained child pornography, which I deleted. Though I was shocked, I continued to use this service and soon discovered that child pornography was frequently ‘hidden’ in the files sent to my computer. I deleted them as I discovered them, but came to foolishly believe that, since the federal government was aware of the existence of this site, that they were also aware of the content of some of the files. What my wife and I did not find out until years later was that by simply opening these files I had broken the law and would pay dearly for it. I have been sent away for 20 years, have lost everything I worked so hard to build, will never see my son, Henry, alive again, as he is terminally ill, and I will be labeled for the rest of my life as someone who wishes to hurt a child. I did not ask for such material, did not watch it, and always deleted it, but in the eyes of the federal government, I had opened the files and that was enough. Now my children no longer have a father to love and support them and all of this happened for what? Free songs and movies?

What is so sad is my stupidity in thinking that such material brought in by this program had nothing to do with me or naively not being aware that I had broken any laws. I did not allow my children to use this program, and they knew to ask me to find the songs and movies they wanted, but I did find out later that some of my employees allowed their children to use this file-sharing program (as millions of children throughout the country do) not knowing the dangers. Even though the federal government was aware of what was happening, there were NO warnings!

In 2001, the House of Representatives, 108th Congress and then the Federal Trade Commission investigated and reported on the dangers to consumers using Peer To Peer sharing software (P2P). Napster and Lime Wire were two of many at the time, and there are many more now. Highlights from their investigations include:

  • Children and adults are being exposed to unwanted and inappropriate material including pornography, rape, murder, and child pornography.
  • Consumers are UNKNOWINGLY exposing themselves to criminal liability when files that seem harmless when downloaded are, in fact, way over the line.
  • In 2001 to 2002 alone, child pornography had increased significantly.
  • Consumers face numerous risks when using P2P, and the government CAN play a useful role by educating consumers and having the software companies WARN users of such risks.

When it was suggested by Congress that they do just that, the software industry for P2P sent the following response to the United States Senate: “File sharing software distributors do not have a legal duty under FTC ACT to affirmatively disclose the risks associated with the programs.”

Today, there are STILL no warnings to parents whose children are being exposed to damaging material, nor are there any warnings for consumers telling them that by using these legal, and popular programs, they could be sent to prison for 10, 15, and 20 years or more. (Editor’s note: Although there are now dropdown ‘flags’ that will warn you if you are downloading copyrighted material that you haven’t paid for, there is still nothing to warn you that perhaps you shouldn’t be using P2P at all because of the tremendous proliferation of child pornography into the various files and your life could be destroyed if you do continue.) Our federal government has reported that such material is flooding our Internet and that P2P programs are major offenders in the proliferation of this filth hidden behind altered titles and descriptions, and it has been happening for 20 years! Why not just shut them down if they cannot control the content?

Each year it becomes more and more difficult to protect our children from disturbing, damaging, and illegal material on the Internet and on TV. During the 6 years I made use of P2P to download music and movies for my family, I found that there was a continual increase in the amount of violent, disturbing, and illegal material, just like the government reported, and I am sorry to say that the unwanted and unasked for files of child pornography seemed to increase the most.

It is hard for me to believe, but at some point I became numb to such material, but I assumed that it was simply the way it was and I knew the government was aware of it, so it seemed to make sense to me that if they allowed the P2P sites to operate that it must be ok, as long as you were not specifically seeking that type of material or saving it when it was ‘snuck’ into your home via misleading file descriptions and titles. It was simply a matter of immediately identifying and deleting such material and channeling on to the next file. You didn’t watch it, you just moved on until you found the file you were actually searching for. The simple fact was that a title like “Harry Potter” could have Harry Potter inside, or pornography, or some other unrelated movie like “The Sound of Music”. P2P is nothing more than a crap shoot and the federal government KNOWS this.

I had first heard of this file-sharing program on a TV news show, so my wife and I had always assumed that the authorities knew such material was there, and they DID! I have now lost my freedom for the next TWENTY years leaving my children without a father. Worst of all, it left Leigh, my wife of 17 years, alone to raise and support our boys, including caring for Henry, our oldest child, who is physically and mentally disabled, and has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Henry had just received a trip from the Make A Wish Foundation, so you have an idea of the seriousness of his condition. Leigh is also battling her own serious health issues that have sent her back to the hospital countless times, and now with me gone she has no family to take care of our children when she is sick.

Because I was taken away, our once healthy business that supplied an income and health insurance not just for myself and Leigh, but to 15 employees as well, had to close. Our home of over 20 years is in foreclosure, Leigh has no job, and the group insurance needed so desperately for Henry and Leigh is gone. All of this without any family to fall back on. One of my sons is terminally ill and not expected to live past 24. He is 16. I will never see him again. I’M DESPERATE, PLEASE HELP ME!

As a child, and as an adult, I was not one to dream of what my future was going to be. I never wished for a fancy car or home, and never thought of doing anything else but fix air conditioners. I was good at it and built a nice little company with a good, solid reputation. My only friends have been my wife and children, and it was my responsibility to love them and take care of them. It was a wonderful life!

As with any parent, I would do anything to protect my children, but I have left them with heartache and an uncertain future. It was my job to protect, support, and love them, and I had promised to be there for whatever God had planned for our boy Henry. He is the bravest and most inspiring person I have ever met. “Never give up!” he would tell us, but I have given up. I am helpless in finding a way to be there for them. They trusted me and I have failed them.

All of this is such a waste. My ignorance in understanding that I was doing something wrong, and my government’s unusual idea of ‘justice’, has destroyed my family, which did not have to happen. I am 55 years old and have never been in trouble in my life, nor did I think I ever would be. I have never visited an illegal website, or tried to contact a child (or anyone else for that matter), and I did not intentionally search for, or download child pornography, yet I used a defective program and did not listen to my moral compass when P2P brought in child pornography. I should not have become numb to it, but accepted it as an unpleasant part of a program that operated in full view of, and with the complete knowledge of my government, whom I trusted to protect ME so I could then be around to protect my family.

I have paid dearly. I have lost it all. TWENTY YEARS?? Leaving children without their father?? WHY???

David’s Letter will continue……

BIGGER THAN ME by Richard Roy

Prison is an incredibly negative environment that perpetuates hatred, segregation and all manner of evil.  It is a personal goal of mine to engage this mindset in combat at every opportunity.  Only time and others can judge my success.

I gave this speech for my benefit in completing another goal as a Toastmaster while using it to recruit others to my case.  I hope it inspires you as well.

Bigger than me

By Richard Roy


A grandfather and grandchild were walking the beach at low tide.  Stranded starfish lay along the shore, dying in the morning sun as far as the eye could see.  The little girl ran from one to another, stopping just long enough to stoop, pick it up and fling the starfish into the surf.  The grandfather asked, “Child, what are you doing?”  “I’m saving the pretty starfish gramps.”  “You can’t possibly save them all,” he pointed out.  Stooping to pick up another, she pitched it to the sea before replying, “No, but I made a difference to that one.”

Today is the day for an uprising, a revolt, the day to buck the system, today we change the very fabric of the culture of FCI Oakdale.  From this day forward, those who wish to espouse a doctrine of hate are no longer acceptable.  Today we make a difference.

Man is not inherently good.

This statement is contrary to what we want to believe.  We are told by media, ministers, motivational speakers and mama that deep inside each of us we want to the right thing.  This concept is so ingrained into our society that we assume it is common knowledge.  So why are our prisons full and growing daily?  If humans are inherently good, why we are so surprised, inspired even, by such a basic idea as Oprah Winfrey’s “random acts of kindness?”

I submit as evidence of man’s base instinct – the man sitting next to you.  That man, when left to his own devices, took the low road.  When he was unsupervised his mind wandered.  When darkness fell, he used it to his advantage.  When technology advanced, he perverted it.  When others craved to feed an addiction, he filled it.

But, you may say, these are learned behaviors.  Really?  Who taught the toddler to say, “I dunno,” when mom asks, “who broke the vase?”  How does the youngest of our offspring know to assign blame to anyone other than himself when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary?  Why is bullying rampant in our schools?

Think Bigger Than Yourself

With all this self-centeredness built into our nature, we must work at thinking bigger than ourselves.  Most parents are able to encompass their children in their circle of caring without too much effort.  Beyond that, though, requires work.

Deep thinkers have recognized the need for “looking out” for thousands of years.  But the concept often makes us uncomfortable.  Take, for instance, the “Golden Rule:” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In the seventies we saw the bumper sticker:  Do unto others, then split.  Another cynical aspect is:  He who has the Gold, Rules.

The following, philosophies embrace the golden rule.

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul the apostle wrote, “And do not forget to do good and share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

Sacrifice?  Doing good is so hard for humans that the most prolific writer in the New Testament calls it a sacrifice?  And don’t forget?  We have to tie a string around our finger just to remember to do something good for someone else?

In Buddhism, the Law of Karma states, “If you do good, good will return to you.”

The prophet Mohammad taught, “What I want for myself is what I want for my brother.”

The Roman statesman Seneca said, “This is the law of benefits between men; the one ought to forget at once what he has given, and the other ought never to forget what he has received.

These great thinkers believe it a basic necessity of life to think bigger than ourselves.  To do any less, mankind threatens to hate itself out of existence.

The second law of thermodynamics states that order slides into disorder.  The human equivalent is a teenager’s bedroom.  The parent picks things up, washes clothes, organizes the closet and makes the bed.  Within moments of the teen entering this ordered space, chaos descends.  It is only with the application of energy – parent, teen, maid – that order is reestablished.

In our personal lives, the application of energy is required to restore harmony between people.

Accept responsibility for your own life

In the book Good to Great the author interviews the owner of a highly successful manufacturing company.  The author wants to know what sets this operation apart from the competition.  The owner points to the wall overlooking the manufacturing floor.

“See that glass in the wall?  When things are good:  Profits up, expenses down, quality exceptional, that glass is a window.  The credit belongs to the people doing the work.  I never forget they are the reason for our success.”

“But when a glitch occurs, that glass becomes a mirror.  The problems belong to me.  But guess where the solution lies – out there.  The solution to the problem is in the hands of those who know the process best.  It becomes my responsibility to draw the answer out; encourage input and provide resources to effect change.”

You are the CEO of your life.  You own the outcome of your actions.  Give credit for your successes to those who deserve it.  You know how to read?  Thank a teacher.  You’ve written a stellar business plan?  Thank Mr. Edwards.  But when life happens and you find yourself in prison – look in the mirror, then give yourself the resources to change.  Your best resource is your attitude.

I don’t have the courage

We all fear rejection.  Humans are social animals.  As such, we desire the company and approval of fellow humans.  Many of my decisions in life were rooted in the desire to please others:  Spouse, children, bosses, co-workers, subordinates and even total strangers.

The perception of peer pressure is a powerful force.  Humans will fall in line, often against our will, because we perceive compliance is what our peers demand.  But what if those around you are simply waiting for you to take the first step.

The reality of our situation is we are in a physical prison.  Our bodies are incarcerated in an extremely negative environment.  Many around us feel the need to enforce compliance to their negative world view.  I’m going to let you in on a secret:  They’re scared.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of fear.  The more he fears, the more he will hate.  And hatred is also a great anodyne for shame.”

Now is the time to start a revolution!  A revolution against hate and fear.  A revolution of courage against peer pressure.

I started attending Miracle Place Church after I was arrested.  Like many of you, I sought answers to why I made the decisions I did.  At one week night service I arrived early to pray.  Alone, in my corner at the back, I silently pleaded for a sign that my prayers were heard.

“God you know I don’t take hints very well.  So please don’t ‘suggest’ my family and I will be okay; Let me know for certain that you have heard my prayers.”

A frail 84 year old woman named Ms. Dorothy knelt at my feet as I sat in my chair at the end of the service.  She put her hands on either side of my head, pulling me forward until our foreheads were touching.  In a firm voice she said, “I don’t know what this means but God says he heard you the first time.

Courage to break the norm.  Courage to take the first step.  Courage to approach a stranger to deliver a message of encouragement.  Do you have the courage of an 80 year old woman?  Need more encouragement?  Let’s look at the health benefits of social contact.

The Donner party is a group of men, women and children, some married, some single, some family, some strangers just along for the ride.  In the early 1840’s they became stuck in the Mountains due to early snow storms and bad advice.  By the time members of the party managed to reach help, more than half the party had died.  The survivors had resorted to cannibalism.

Critical analysis of this tragedy reveals the following from the book “The Indifferent Stars Above.”

“Male or female, those who traveled with a large family group had a better chance of survival than those who were on their own.  This is in keeping with other studies correlating survival with the size of social networks.  Scientists are not sure why this effect takes place.  Theories point to better sharing of critical information and scarce resources, better mutual aid in emergencies, better emotional support, and the possibility that the immune system is physically stimulated by close proximity to loved ones.”

Imagine that, being surrounded by people who like you increases your own chance of surviving hardships.  If you are too timid to reach out to another person for their benefit then do it for yourself.  Build your base of friends, your social network, to improve the quality of your own life and advance your own longevity.

Want more health benefits?

Doctor Caroline Leaf states in her book “The gift in you:”

“There is a massive ‘unlearning’ of negative toxic thoughts when we operate in love.  The brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, which literally melts away the negative toxic thought clusters.  So that rewiring of new non-toxic circuits can happen.  This chemical also flows when we trust and bond and reach out to others.  Love literally wipes out fear.”

“Dopamine works with oxytocin.  It flows as we expect and anticipate something.  It gives us a thrilling surge of energy and excitement and confidence and motivation to carry on.  Then when we experience what we anticipate, endorphins and serotonin are released that make us feel great.”

Dare to be different

Whom do you admire?  Michael Jordan of sports?  Jack Welch of business?  Steve Jobs of technology?  Warren Buffet of investors?  Dr. King of civil rights?  Gandhi of social change?  Why?  Because they dare to be different.

Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you are trying to create.”  You must dare to be different.

It is not enough for us to talk about the ignorance of prison mentality.  To change prison thinking we must live the change.  Each of the leaders I mentioned weren’t elected to their role.  They dared to be different in their respective fields.  They saw a better way and made the change.  They led the way out of the trap of “group think.”

I once had a battalion commander shut the door to my office and plop down in front of my desk. “Roy,” he started, “when you look at 2nd Battalion, they are always at the top; physical fitness, marksmanship, unit readiness reports, always number one.  Others are always shooting at them, trying to tear them down off the pedestal.  On the other hand, if you are always at the bottom then people look down at you and wonder why you’re so messed up.  I think it’s important that we aim for the middle.  Not the top, not the bottom, but in the middle where we don’t draw any attention.  Understand?  I’m glad we could have this talk.”

He walked out of my office leaving me to meditate on the mysteries of mediocrity.  I got his message.  I had pushed my soldiers hard to be the best.  I wasn’t satisfied with sloppy seconds.  I wanted to be first.  His philosophy was to aim for mediocrity.  Once you fight your way to the top its hard work to stay there.  He did not have the will to be different.

There is a fable of a weary traveler that wandered into a village one evening.  There in the center of the village was a pit filled with warm sewage.  Thirty or forty people were in the pit with the filth up to their chins.

Unable to believe his eyes, the traveler got too close to the edge and fell in.  Immediately he clawed at the sides of the pit doing everything he could to get out.  The nearest villager shouted, “Calm down, you’re making waves.”

Is that where you are today?  Happy in your warm pit of filth as long as nobody makes waves.  Or do you have the large pair of solid brass orbs necessary to be different.

Don’t wait for the wizard

In the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” each member of the traveling party had something they desired:  The cowardly lion – courage, the Tin man – a heart, the Scarecrow – a brain.  Dorothy just wanted to go home.

In the end, each member of the Oz party discovered they already possessed the desires of their heart.  All they needed to do was exercise it.  The Lion didn’t need the wizard for his courage.  It was in him the whole time.  Likewise, each of you possesses the ability to influence the life of another person on this compound.  Don’t wait for the Wizard; make a difference today.

Like Dorothy, we all desire to go home.  The men in this room have already taken positive steps to make that transition a success.  When I leave these meetings I feel good about our futures.  I know I’ll take a lot of lessons learned with me, as will you.

However, what we take with us is not nearly as important as what we leave behind.  Will this compound be a better place for you having been here?  Or will you have made no difference at all.  Like a canoe slipping across a still pond in the early grey fog before sunrise:  minutes after you’re gone there is no memory of your presence.

So set goals to make a difference.  Like the little girl and the starfish, maybe you can’t make a difference in everyone’s life, you can make a difference to one.

When you walk into a restaurant you don’t say, “bring me some food.”  Instead, you are very specific – you pick exactly what you want from the menu.

Right now I want you to set a goal to do one act of kindness before you get back to the unit.  Introduce yourself to someone and make a concerted effort to remember their name.  Then call them by name when you see them around the compound.  Hold the door open for someone and let them go ahead of you. Give a legitimate complement to someone you don’t ordinarily speak to.  Now set a goal for everyday this week.  Every day, make the effort to be a difference maker in someone’s life.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of California – Riverside recently completed a study called “Kindness counts.”  One of the things the study showed was that participants experienced significantly increased feelings of happiness and satisfaction after one month of documenting three acts of kindness per week.

But when compared to a control group, who documented three pleasant places they visited per week, those who performed and documented their acts of kindness were liked and accepted to a greater degree by their peers.  On average, they gained 1.5 friends during the four week period.

Dale Carnegie is quoted as saying, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Need Help?  Try one of these

–          Write a friend to say that a song or movie reminded you of them.

–          Shut up and listen

–          Help carry the trash out

–          Give someone a book that had meaning to you

–          Tell someone about the qualities you admire in them

–          Introduce someone to another of your friends

–          Hold the door open

–          Write a letter to someone you admire telling them how they touched your life

–          Let someone go ahead of you in line

–          Clean out your locker, give unused stuff to someone else

–          Smile, make conversation


I noticed a relatively new guy to our unit had not quite integrated after a couple weeks.  He sat by himself, rarely conversing with those around him.  I was even witness to a tense exchange of words between him and the medical staff.

I used the incident as an opportunity to start a conversation with him.  We walked to dinner together, ate together, and walked back together.  At my cell we parted ways.  I observed him make it about halfway through the unit, turnaround and walk back to where I was standing.

He stuck out a hand the size of a Virginia ham.  As I attempted to shake it he said, “Thank you for having dinner with me.”

I looked into his eyes well over a foot above my head and could see a difference had been made in the life of one starfish.

Make today the turning point; the riot of 2013.  The day the BOP will come to recognize inmates instituted positive as the norm, rejecting negativity as acceptable.

I finish with a quote from Dr. Seuss:

You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own and know what you know

And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.


LOST AT SEA by Richard Roy

If a man had done his best, what else is there?  -General George S. Patton

Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope.  -Zechariah 9:12

Through the inky blackness of the night a small ship sails, tossed side-to-side, cresting and falling, wave and trough. Sailors fight to keep the ship together, lashing cargo, manning bilge pumps, sliding across worn decks slickened by the turbulent sea.

The water engulfs one sailor just as he releases his grip on the rail. His intention is to help; his action ill-advised. The wake of the ship pulls him under. He struggles against the forces of nature. The water parts above his head.  He gulps to fill his oxygen starved lungs.

The ship sails away.

The sailor, whose love has always been the sea, now finds the embrace of his lover more than he can bear. He screams to the ship for help, but the fight to save the ship and the salt water he swallowed has hoarsened his throat. The sound, had anyone been around to hear it, is terrifying. He curses, cries, pleads, screams and curses some more.

The lights of the ship, when visible, continue to dim as it moves into the distance.

The storm abates, waves calm, the eastern sky lightens, the last visible speck of the ship blips into the horizon. The sailor treads water.  He is exhausted from the fight but has established an ebbing equilibrium. It’s inevitable that he will, at some point, slip beneath the surface, nothing but a memory to those now abandoned.  For now though, he copes with what he has been given.

Your husband (son, father, friend) went through a turbulent time before coming to prison. Some break down, some express bravado, some resign themselves to fate and still others spew vitriol toward the system, family or friends. But all are souls tossed from the ship of society. Only the reaction to his plight is different.

It may be hard to know how to interact with your inmate. Human nature will not make this task any easier. You will experience phases of emotion much like the Stages of Grief: Denial, Pain and Guilt, Anger, Depression, Working Through, and Acceptance.  Understand, your inmate is feeling these same emotions. It is precisely this understanding that will carry you through.

Don’t give up. Contact with those who have meaning in his life is important beyond measure. We are exposed to others’ conversations while waiting at the phone bank  I am often dismayed by what I hear: abusive language, unreasonable demands and ultimatums from the incarcerated to the free world. I can’t imagine how it is received on the other end.

If this is something you have experienced then allow me to explain:  you are hearing the cries of the drowning man, the desperate, the powerless. These men used to earn a living.  They controlled what they ate and when. Entertainment wasn’t limited to one movie on Saturday night selected by an unknown person. Your inmate used to have choices:  freedom to work hard, earn money, pursue a dream. He also had freedom to slack off, abuse his choices and put his family through misery. Now all freedom is gone.  The choices he is allowed to make are petty. Eat, don’t eat. Work, don’t work. Exercise, don’t exercise. As far as the B.O.P. is concerned his only requirement is to breathe in and out occasionally.

Here’s where you come in. It is up to you to keep your inmate engaged; actively involved in the outside world. Start with regular correspondence. It doesn’t have to be an epistle, a simple note or newspaper clipping sends the message that someone cares. You cannot imagine how it feels to hear your name at mail call. Not organized? I get a one page letter from my sister every month, nearly the same day of the month. Knowing my sister, she has set up an email reminder on her work computer. I don’t care how she remembers, just that it is important to me that she does. Celebrate special days with a card. Purchase them in advance, sign them and put a Post-It Note on each to remind you when to send it.

A hometown newspaper subscription keeps your inmate aware of the community goings-on.  Prison is a time machine. The induced isolation gives the perception that the outside world is in a state of suspended animation. I suspect many felons return to prison as a result of the disorientation experienced to realize the world has moved on in their absence.  Soldiers experience this as well when they return from a long deployment.

Don’t coddle. Hiding bad news is ill-advised. Your inmate is an adult, treat him like one.  Inmates need to assimilate the same information you do in order to see future decisions from your point of view. Dog died, finances tight, unexpected pregnancy, these are a part of life. It may not be welcome news but it must be dealt with regardless. Small doses over the course of an incarceration are easier to digest than a heap to choke down upon release.

Involve your inmate in family decisions. Keeping him actively involved reassures his delicate sense of manhood. Consider his input regardless of what you ultimately decide. Then follow up, especially if it is not aligned with his desires.  Even seemingly small decisions become a big deal when an inmate has nothing else to focus his attention. The take-away? Involve, don’t tell.

Prison is a tough love situation. The vast majority of us put ourselves in this situation through our self-centered behavior. Your job is to no longer tolerate self-centeredness. Your inmate may need financial support to get set up initially, for stamps and phone calls. Commissary purchases are nice, and make prison slightly more tolerable, but aren’t necessary to sustain life. Your inmate will not starve to death. Your tax dollars are not paying for steak dinners but most meals are edible. Be careful in your monetary support. The same temptations that exist in the free world exist behind bars. The weaknesses your inmate had out there are the same ones he will have in here.

I wish I could report that every inmate is penitent and uses his time behind bars to develop his strength of character. However, inmates are still human and still subject to making poor decisions. To move in a positive direction he needs a base of support: you. You are his connection to the outside world. You are his link to civilization. His successful re-entry depends in large part on how you handle his incarceration.

Now a word to my fellow inmates. You made your decisions while free, man-up and live with the consequences. Nobody on the outside owes you anything.  Don’t like your situation?  Resolve not to come back. The root of the word penitentiary is penitent which means “suffering pain or sorrow for sin with will to amend.” Amend means “to free from fault or error; to correct; to improve.” So if you are suffering in your current situation then count it all joy to have this opportunity to free your thinking and behavior from fault and error.

Write home regularly. So what if you don’t have anything to say. Clip meaningful cartoons from the paper or retell funny jokes. Your family wants to hear from you. Relate the things you are doing to better yourself. Sure there are a million negatives in prison but most of them you should keep to yourself. Look for the positive things to share.

Call those you love as often as your finances will allow. The few minutes you have are precious and expensive. Use your time wisely. Lift up those we abandoned. Listen to what they have to say. They are hip deep in bills, doctor visits, work and school. Hear what they have to say and understand they are making do without your help. The last thing they need from you is verbal abuse or instruction on what you think they need to do. Start and end conversations on an upbeat.

Don’t make demands. You are a ward of the government. Your family has no obligation to support you. Focus on living within your means. Honest, dependable, hard workers are respected everywhere; even in prison. Use this as an opportunity to develop your character and your needs will be met. Best of all, your family will respect you for it.


Resetting My Life Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Prison

by Steve Marshall

      First, let me stress that the title is a joke. I couldn’t resist the temptation to parody the 1964 classic film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” In truth, I love prison about as much as I love the bomb.

      Actually, this is about how I arrived at the unexpected realization that I accept being a prisoner and embrace the fact that I am where I need to be. This is the story of how I arrived at this surprising crossroads.

      When I was arrested on April 15, 2009, it was a sudden and immediate wake-up call; a punch in the gut that informed me that my life had gone seriously off the rails. Like many people in a similar situation, I became painfully aware ‘that I had lost sight of my moral compass ‘ and that my spiritual cup was bone dry. I tried to address the problem by joining a traditional Christian church. But with each’ passing Sunday, I realized that, for me, this was not a comfortable fit.

      You see I am, by definition, an atheist. Most Judeo-Christian theology strikes me as magical thinking. My life is informed by science, logic, provable fact and natural law. Having said that, I must add that I have the greatest respect for the beliefs of others. Whatever gets us through the circuitous maze that we call life and provides us with strength, wisdom, comfort and a sense of direction is ‘aces in my book. Let’s face it – no one has the facts. All we have is what we believe to be true. In that sense, each of us has his or her own personal truth.

      So where does an atheist go for spiritual enlightenment? In my case, the answer lay with the Unitarian-Universalist Church.  You see, the U-Us have no dogma of their own. In fact, they offer classes in the world’s religions, urging us to seek what makes sense to us. Take something from Christianity, ‘something else from Buddhism, add a pinch of Judaism or a dash of Hinduism and let simmer. It is, in effect, “Build Your Own Theology.” The principle goal and purpose of Unitarian-Universalism is to lead us in the direction of becoming better people. I knew after attending my first service that I had finally found a spiritual home.

      But when t came to be locked up in a’ remote Southern prison, I discovered that they offered no Unitarian-Universalist services. In fact, they had never heard of either faith (the Unitarians and the Universalists merged in the 1960s), even though both have existed for hundreds of years. So what was I to do? How was I to continue this spiritual journey?

      Happily, I found more than one person in my circle of remaining friends who were Unitarian-Universalists and were willing to download the sermons of U-U ministers from a number of different churches and mail them to me. I keep them in their own envelope and withdraw one each Sunday to read and digest. I have come to think of myself as “A Congregation of One.” Someone very close to me (a U-U, of course) has even started a blog with that as a title, posting excerpts from the letters that I write after reading each sermon.

      Most of the sermons provide interesting and engaging food for thought. But occasionally I’ll come upon one that is a real life changer. Such was the case on Sunday, January 12, 2013 when I read a sermon titled “Want What You Have.” My first reaction upon seeing that title was that I was probably not going to connect with this sermon’s message. After all, what I have is three and a half more years of living in a federal prison. Who could possibly want that? Well, never judge a book by its cover nor a sermon by its title.

      This particular sermon was based on the works of Rev. Forrest Church, the former minister of All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in New York and a religious scholar of some renown.

      As I began to read, I was informed that “Rev. Church had written an essay which bore the title “Want What You Have” when he was in the end stages of his life, suffering from terminal cancer. I was taken aback with this news as I stopped reading to consider how anyone could advance such an idea – want what you have – when what he had was a virulent disease that was killing him. I read on and soon realized that I was myopic in my grasp of Rev. Church’s message. His thesis challenged me to look at the bigger picture and see that what I had was more than just a life in prison. What I had, in fact, was an unparallel opportunity to learn and grow.

      When my life deteriorated to the point of leading me to become a convicted felon for the first and only time at the advanced age of 65; the one thing that became blindingly clear was that I was in serious need of a mid-course correction. My problem was so serious that it would require much more than a simple fix. I needed to have my entire life reset.

      In order to achieve a reset, I needed to go back to square one; to lose my home, my family, all of my possessions; my freedom itself.

      I must confess to the fact that I had become a master of the dubious art of distracting myself from any meaningful contemplation that might result in my becoming a better human being. I had my giant screen television, an endless stream of movies and my beloved iPhone, which ensured that I would never again have to endure another nanosecond of boredom. I had the Internet to take me anywhere I wanted to go, including the most degrading and debasing places possible. All of these things conspired to sap away my basic humanity. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was all gone.

      The biggest loss, of course, was my marriage and the love and esteem of people who meant everything to me. Some of those relationships survived; others did not. Some of the people whom I loved to the depths of my soul are lost to me forever. But a reset can’t always be pretty. It can come with a very high price tag. It doesn’t happen in a day, a week” a month or even a year. It takes time, patience, attention and a fierce desire to be a better person than I have ever been. I finally have the time and motivation to focus laser-like on that goal. The seeds ‘for this reset were sown the moment I first stepped into the U-U church while I was still under house arrest. The work has continued at a steady pace ever since.

      I have almost reached the midpoint in the six and a half years that I must spend in federal custody. I know to a certainty that I am already a better man than I was on the morning of April 15, 2009. But I still have some distance to travel before I will be who I want to be – the man I always thought I was. That’s who I want to become.

      I am a work in progress.

      I am grateful for the time, energy and motive to become that man. That is the immutable gift that has been given to me.

      So.   Do I want what I have?



By Anonymous

“Good night, Sweet Prince.
May a chorus of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
William Shakespeare

Tony Casson has written eloquently in this space about the American mania for incarceration and the many ways that it affects both those who are locked up and those who love them and have been left behind to fend for themselves. So I thought it might be fitting that I write about my own experience being cut off from my family.

I am originally from Southern California and moved with my wife and son to Little Rock, Arkansas in 2007 to be closer to our grandchildren. My daughter and her family remained in California as did my brother, sister and nephews.

After I was arrested in 2009 and sentenced early in 2010, I was sent here to Oakdale, Louisiana, even though there are prisons closer to both Arkansas and California. The Bureau of Prisons claims that they recognize and support the importance of family in the rehabilitation of inmates and for that reason, they maintain a policy of locating prisoners within 500 miles of their families. Since Little Rock falls within that radius, the BOP is technically adhering to policy.

However, not long after my arrest, my wife announced that she would be divorcing me. (That divorce was finalized on September 25, 2012). She has never visited me since I was locked up. My son has moved back to California, so effectively I have no family left in Little Rock. Since coming to Oakdale, I was visited by my daughter once in September 2010. My sister visited in February 2011 and my first wife, the mother of my daughter, came from Colorado to see me earlier this year. Those are the only visits I have had in the nearly three years that I have been a prison inmate.

When I first arrived here, I inquired as to how I might obtain a transfer to FCI Terminal Island in Southern California where I might be closer to my daughter, my brother, my sister and nephews. I was told that I had to remain here for 18 months before any transfer request would be considered.

As soon as that year and a half was up, in November of 2011, I filed for the transfer. Owing to a series of bureaucratic foul-ups and a change in staffing, my request languished in a desk drawer for two months. Finally, in January of this year, my application went to the BOP and was denied on the basis of overcrowding. I had heard that many such requests were being turned down for that reason, so I had enlisted the aid of a friend on the outside to monitor the census at Terminal Island on the BOP website. Six months prior to my application, there were 1,128 inmates housed there. During the week in which my application was denied due to “overcrowding,” the count stood at 1,054. I was told I would have to wait for another year before I could reapply. I was disappointed, of course. But it wasn’t the end of the world.

Seven months ago, my brother informed me that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He began a series of aggressive chemotherapy treatments, though the doctors had pronounced his situation “dire”.

I know if I had still been a free man, I would have been on the first available flight to California to be there for him; to help him through this excruciating experience in any way I could for as long as necessary. So my first reaction was anger; anger at myself for having put myself in a situation where I could not act on my instinct to go to my brother; anger at the Bureau of Prisons for refusing my request for spurious reasons. Thanks to them, I would never see my brother again.

I write these words at 9:19 pm on Friday, September 28, 2012. Less than ninety minutes ago, I was informed that my brother had died at 4:45 this morning. My nephew had called the chaplain’s office at 10 am, only to be told that the chaplain was “in a meeting.” He called again at noon and was told that the chaplain was still unavailable. My nephew asked that he be permitted to leave a message for me. I got the message eight hours later.

I am raw. I am distraught. I am profoundly angry. But I have no place to put that anger except on these pages.

When I knew the end was near, I wrote some words for my nephew to read at his father’s service because the federal prison system does not allow us to attend the funerals of our loved ones. I called my brother six days ago and read my words to him. Since they were written to him, I thought it fitting that I share them with him while he was still able to hear them and so I did. He thanked me and we shared an emotion-filled moment together. It turned out to be the last time I would get to spend with him. I don’t think he would mind if I shared those words with you here:


It seems impossible that you are no longer there. You’ve always been there. From the first second I slipped into this world, you were there – my big brother. When I travelled a winding and often dark road as a child, you were right there with me, sharing both the laughter and the sorrow; the smiles and the tears; the triumphs and the pain.

Even when time and distance separated us, you were still my brother and the bonds that were forged early in our lives held us fast.

What I will carry with me always is that you were a good and decent man. In my estimation, there is no better thing in this world that anyone can be.

No one in this life makes all the right choices, but you always aimed for that lofty goal. When, as a single dad, you found yourself unable to provide your sons with the level of care and structure you wanted for them, you made certain that they were cared for by someone who loved them every bit as much as you did. The fact that it was the right decision is borne out of the reality that they grew to manhood with the same qualities of gentle kindness and innate decency that you carried throughout your life.

It is one of the great regrets of my life that I cannot be there today with the rest of those who have loved you, sharing in the celebration of your life and the grief over your passing. And so I send these words in the hope that you are present in the spirit and bearing witness to the outpouring of love for you that is well earned and deserved.

I believe that the life energy that inhabits us all and that leaves us at life’s end is recyclable. If I’m right, you’ll be back – and so will I and so will everyone here today. It will be a whole new party and we’re all invited. Until that time, rest well, my dear brother. I love you – now and always.

“When I Get Out of Prison, I’m Going Straight”

By Tony Casson & Steve Marshall

    Nah, I’m not talking about “going straight,” as in “no more criminal activity for me,” although Lord knows, that’s the truth because I am never coming back here again. But I am talking about… well, let me just tell you:

When I get out of prison, I’m going straight to the first bathroom I see that doesn’t have bunk beds or other people in it and I’m going to close the door without hanging a towel over the window. I’m going to sit there without fear of a man with a big keychain flinging the door open to see if I am actually doing my business or am I having sex with another inmate, smoking dope, masturbating or killing myself. I would just like to sit there, relax, read the paper and use the toilet.

When I get out of prison, I am going straight to the nearest refrigerator and stand with the door wide open, bathed in the light and the coolness and think back to the days when my mother’s voice would interrupt my reverie with “Anthony Edward, close that door!”

When I get out of prison, I’m going straight to the nearest mall and walk… just walk. I’m going to stop and look in the windows of the stores that interest me with no one yelling at me to “Move along!” and no one calling me to one side and running their hands over my body to see what I may or may not be carrying.

And speaking of walking… when I get out of prison, I’m going straight to a place where I can walk for miles and miles, walking aimlessly, taking in the sights and smells and sounds. No more left-hand turn walks around a distorted circle that made me feel like a NASCAR driver with no car; and when I call my sister and tell her I walked four miles and she asks, “Really? Where did you go?” I will tell her of my adventures instead of reminding her that I was in prison and walked around in a circle.

When I get out of prison, I’m going straight to the supermarket and I am going to walk right past the Ramen noodles and the rice and beans and I am going to head right to the meat department where I will pick up packages of steaks and thick pork chops and whole chickens and hold them close to me and kiss them – although probably just those I am buying, and I will try to make sure no one is around. And when I get home with my purchases, I am going to cook a big pile of meat and then I am going straight to the utensil drawer to get a real knife and fork with which to eat my big pile of meat. Metal ones. A sharp knife. Whoa… givin’ me chills here!

When I get out of prison, I am going straight to a big, soft comfortable bed that doesn’t sit four feet away from a toilet, doesn’t make my bones ache and doesn’t require me to climb up on a chair, then a table to access it. It also won’t have an overweight old(er) man snoring with a disturbing wetness in the bunk below me because there will be no bunk below me and if there is another person around, it will definitely not be another male. (“Not that there is anything wrong with that!” J. Seinfeld)

When I get out of prison, I’m going straight to the closet, where I will hang my clothes and then to the kitchen, where I will put away my food. My clothes and my food will miss each other, but that is too bad. They will get reacquainted with their own kind and will never share the same space again.

When I get out of prison, I’m going straight to the refrigerator – again! I just love the refrigerator. I will open the drawer with the vegetables and gaze lovingly upon the tomatoes and cucumbers; the zucchini and the mushrooms; the onions and fresh corn; I will pass on the carrots and cabbage for quite some time, however.

When I get out of prison, I’m going straight to my front window and gaze outside, watching the passing parade of people, pets and automobiles. And when I feel the time is right, I will open the front door and step outside myself without having to wait for the aforementioned gentleman with the keys to show up and decide when he would like to let me out.

When I get out of prison, I am going straight to the television and I am going to turn it on – and turn it off – turn it on and off again. I may even just stand there with the remote, changing channels and I will do it without someone beating me for touching it in the first place. And when I do find something I want to watch, I will do so without ear buds in my ears and a radio tuned to the proper frequency.

Yes, let me tell you, when I get out of prison, I am going straight!

I’m also going to stay out of trouble.