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How Prison Helped Get Me Sober

I was a privileged kid from Virginia when a single joint pointed me down a path of drug dealing, addiction and a 25-year stretch behind bars. It was in federal prison, of all places, where I finally found sobriety.

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Ferranti made the U.S. Marshals Most Wanted

By Seth Ferranti

06/21/12

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Before I started taking drugs, I was a teenage boy version of a Stepford Wife. I got the good grades, I played right sports, I was popular in school, I went to church and I listened earnestly to everything my parents said. I was (literally) an altar boy. I sang in the choir, I was a Boy Scout. Before I smoked my first joint, at the age of 13, I embodied all the squeaky-clean clichés of someone successfully blending into late-'80s middle-class Suburbia. 

Everything changed after I hit that joint. In one toke, I transformed from the All-American, some guy who might have a nickname like Skip, into a menacing wannabe rock-and-roll bad boy. My role models became Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue.

The drug underground of Virginia welcomed me with open arms. I became a star in the druggie set. Whatever it was that was lacking in my previous incarnation as an altar boy disappeared in the haze of high-test marijuana smoke. I progressed quickly. I snorted speed, I ate mushrooms, I drank alcohol, I took LSD and copious amounts of cocaine. I watched nihilistic drug classics like Less Than Zero and said, out loud, to anyone who would listen: "I want what those guys have." 

So I went after it. I was the one leading the other kids deeper into drugs, partying and getting in trouble. When I listened to heavy metal, rap and punk rock—Beastie Boys, Black Flag, Metallica, Guns-n-Roses, NWA—I took the songs seriously. I actually would fight for my right to party.

I was looking at 20 years or more in federal prison. That hit me hard. So I did what any drug addict would do: I pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges, got out on bail, and went on the run.

Eventually I started dealing to support my lifestyle. It started with selling hits of acid and quarter-ounce bags of weed to friends, and when everyone went off to college, I kept hooking them up, in increasingly larger quantities. By the time I was 19, I was supplying LSD and marijuana to 15 colleges in 5 states. It wasn't something I had planned, it just happened—more of a have-drugs-will-travel type of thing than anything else. Plus, I loved the lifestyle: hotel rooms, rental cars, plane trips, girls, drugs, top-shelf booze and easy cash. I smoked weed when I got up (it's called wake-and-bake), and I poured my first drink in the early afternoon. I traveled my circuit between schools, dropping off drugs, picking up money, and partying.

Naturally, I got busted in a sting operation. It had to end. 

When the Commonwealth of Virginia found out how much LSD I was having shipped into the area, they pushed the case federal, subjecting me to notorious federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. I had no idea at the time of my arrest, but I was looking at 20 years or more in federal prison. When I found out, the news hit me hard. So I did what any drug addict would do: I pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges, got out on bail, faked my death (I parked my car by the Potomac River and left a suicide note on the seat), and then I took off.

As a fugitive, my addiction worsened. I ran for two years, to Texas, California, basically the whole country, selling drugs and playing the part of the outlaw. I was on the Federal Marshals Top 15 Most Wanted list. When the  police caught up with me in a motel in Bridgeton, Missouri, I was living the flat-out addict/fugitive life. It wasn't glamorous. And for the first time, I would be held accountable for who I'd become. My mother wouldn’t be able to get me out of this one. As a first-time, non-violent offender, I thought I might get off light. Instead, at the age of 22, I got slammed with a 25-year sentence—longer than I’d been alive. 

Talk about a sobering reality.

In the county jail, waiting to get shipped off to prison, I was drug and alcohol free for the first time in nine years. But it wasn’t recovery, and my sobriety wouldn't last long. In fact, as soon as I got on the prison bus, shackled, handcuffed and chained, I met one of my homeboys, who assured me we would get high as soon as we hit the compound. That homeboy was like an angel—at that point all I wanted to do was escape reality and get stoned. Turns out that prison is different than county jail. There are more than enough drug addicts doing a lot of time in prison. Drugs were everywhere. 

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