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.
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.
I spent the next decade getting high. Drugs became my one comfort, the one way to face a 25-year sentence. I bought marijuana, I smoked it, I chased after it every day. And I never considered myself a drug addict. I never used needles, and didn't even like to have my blood taken. To me, drug addicts were junkies or crackheads. All I did was smoke some weed. But marijuana controlled my life.
Then something happened. I was 31 years old, and I just woke up one day and decided I wasn't going to be an addict any more. There was no triggering event, no Great Awakening or sudden epiphany or even a profound wake-up call. I just made the decision to resume my life, which had been in suspended animation since I started using at age 13. I wanted to become my own master.
10 years later, I’m still in prison, but I have been clean and sober since that day in 2002. I still think about getting and or drunk. I have had plenty of chances. Drugs are still not hard to find in prisons.
In recovery, I have earned three college degrees—Associates, Bachelors and Masters. I have authored four books with more on the way, founded a publishing house and a popular blog, had hundreds of articles published in magazines. I have gotten married to my longtime girlfriend, and I’ve done everything I can to prepare for my release in 2015. I have come to grips with who I am, where I am going and what I want to do in life. Most importantly I have filled that awful void inside me that I needed drugs to placate and sedate. I have filled that void with life, love and accomplishments. These are all things that I could not have achieved if I was still actively involved in the prison drug lifestyle.
But my recovery is not complete. I have almost two decades in prison, and the world has changed a lot since I came in. For instance, there's something called an internet now. And when I was on the street, the cell phones were real big, not sleek like the smartphones people are using today. I've watched all that from behind a prison fence. I am doing all I can to prepare myself for my eventual return to society, and that means working on my recovery. I'm enrolled in the Bureau of Prison's Residential Drug Abuse Program, which is an intensive and extensive 500-hour, 10-month program geared to get me ready to transition back to the world. I know I need all the help that I can get.
I wasted a tremendous amount of time getting high. It's took took a lot to get me to recovery: a 25-year federal prison sentence, 18 years of drug addiction, 10 years of sobriety and a lifetime of self-destructive behavior. But I made it. To me recovery means more than simply staying drug free; it means staying free, period. I count myself lucky that I can take advantage of the Residential Drug Abuse Program. I'm ready to go home and resume my life. I'm ready to go home and take care of my loving wife. I'm ready to go home and see my family. But most of all I am ready to introduce the new, out-of-prison, drug-free Seth Ferranti to the world. Because even though I've served all these years in prison, I like who I am today and wouldn't change it for anything.
Fix columnist Seth Ferranti last wrote about the plight of convict Clarence Aaron, who's serving three life terms for his part in a cocaine deal. To learn more about prisoners, check out gorillaconvict.com. Seth's new book, Gorilla Convict, a compilation of his writing about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling, is now available.