Friday, June 25, 2004

One man's prison

May 4th, 2004

A "friend-of-mine" tale for you, ending with a question. A friend of mine, now middle-aged, has led a slightly-more-than-interesting life. He's had a number of fascinating jobs, and enjoyed many an adventure doing them. That all ended in 1983. That year, at the age of 29, he gave into greed and stupidity for the first time in his life. This guy, who had worked in the interest of local and national crime prevention for 10 years, decided to steal. The theft was of cash, in an amount to make the charge felony grand theft. He knew what he had to do. He entered a plea of guilty, and arrived at his last hearing fully prepared to go to prison, the thought of which he dreaded, but felt he honestly deserved. Instead, he was sentenced to 3 years probation, a fine, and community service. He lost the job he had when he was arrested, so community service gave him a reason to continue on, as he was working in a field he enjoyed, and was good at. Unfortunately, it was for the city, and at the end of his service obligation, he couldn't get hired on, as he and the agency both desired,

being a convicted felon. With permission, he moved out of state to get a fresh start. To get his next job, he had to lie on the application when it asked if he'd ever been convicted of a felony. Having been in law enforcement, he knew his home state wouldn't release his criminal history without a more formal request than a job application. He worked that job, moving up to middle management, for 13 years, and every day was sure that this would be the day he was found out and tossed out the door. And since he knew he deserved such treatment, he wouldn't have resisted.
This is the issue. The state felt he'd be better off serving probation than going to prison. But my friend sentenced himself to a prison of his own design, in his own mind. And he's still serving that sentence 21 years later. Once he was an outgoing, adventurous, chance-taking funster. Since 1983, he's become withdrawn, introverted, quiet, nervous, self-critical, unmotivated and self-destructive in many ways, none of them physical. He moved back home after 13 years elsewhere, and found a job on whose application he didn't need to lie. They asked if he'd commited a felony in the last 7 years, and to this he could answer "no" honestly. Yet he still worried. He told no one. Even most of the members of his family have never been told, some with whom he interacts on a daily basis. You can imagine the mental strain this causes. Even most of those closest to him don't really know him as well as they think they do. And he's aware of this. And it tears him up.
How long should someone keep themselves in prison? How do they go about releasing themselves? I'm not asking in a religious context, neither he or I are religious at all, and it's not going to be a consideration. But it seems to me that there ought to be a sort of pardon one can extend to themselves, a period of time after which one can let themselves off the hook. He took a small step in that direction today. For the first time since his arrest, he answered honestly when asked on an application if he'd ever been arrested. And the interviewer mentioned it. This was a moment he'd dreaded for 21 years. But once he explained, and took responsibility for his crime, all the interviewer said was that it would prevent him from accepting certain government jobs. He said he was well aware of that, being a veteran and former government employee for a time. But that was fine. And the interview went very well otherwise. The weight began to lift...just a little. It's not a monkey on his back, it's an elephant. Today, the elephant took a dump, and lightened the load by a few pounds.
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