The Cost of Freedom—Recovery as an Ex-convict

By Seth Ferranti 12/09/15

Seth Ferranti catches up with fellow prison rehab graduates to see how the program worked for them.

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Recovery is a difficult process to go through. It can be even harder when you are coming home from a stint of incarceration. Recidivism rates are sky high, and with 3 out of every 5 ex-offenders returning to prison within three years, a successful reentry isn’t a given. Add drug addiction to that equation, and the odds get worse. Nothing can be more insurmountable than returning to society as a drug addict and ex-convict.

But the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers a program, the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), that works hard to prepare inmates with drug problems to return to the world. I know about it firsthand because I went through the 10-month, 500-hour modified therapeutic community in 2013 and 2014. It was an intense, in-your-face and confrontational experience. But at the same time, RDAP can be a tremendous help to those who take it seriously. I reached out to a couple of the dudes I went through the program with to see how they are doing, two years out.

“I haven’t been in nothing. A fight or anything,” Jerry Nations, a 48-year-old from Carthage, Texas who did 50 months for possession of chemicals with intent to manufacture meth, tells The Fix. “A couple of times, I’ve wanted to bust a motherfucker in the head, but I didn’t do it. I'm still clean, haven’t drank, used any drugs, haven't even smoked a cigarette.”

That means a lot coming from the man we called Squirrel. Squirrel was a feisty Texas shit-stomper who always seemed to be into something. He was quick to tell a joke and even quicker to throw a punch. I remember plenty of times it seemed like he was going to get thrown out of RDAP, but with some perseverance and the help of others, he made it through. And though a bunch of guys we went through the program with have returned to prison or violated, Squirrel is still out, living the good life and relishing his recovery.

“I work as a ranch foreman. I take care of a bunch of cows. I put hay out for them and stuff like that,” he says. “I don’t really want to do drugs anymore. I’m not really worried a whole lot about it. I don’t really do nothing, and the fact that my PO is checking in on me regular keeps me from doing something. When you got that big brother eye watching, you're not going to do nothing.” 

The constant surveillance is only one part of the conditions of Squirrel’s release. As part of his RDAP commitment, Squirrel takes regular drug tests. If Squirrel violated the terms of his release by getting a dirty urine, he’d be returned to prison. That same rule applies to all RDAP graduates. We are forced to adhere to a zero tolerance policy. Squirrel’s been out for two years, but still has two years left of probation to do. The drug test has been a regular part of his programming since leaving prison.

“My PO made me take the urinalysis for a full year. Other people are taking them for like 4 months or 6 months, and I'm taking it a year,” he tells The Fix. “I started out six times a month and I had to drive an hour to take them. Then it dwindled down to four times, and then two times, and I've never failed one either. My PO makes me go to the psych doctor a lot too. It was two times a month. I just got it cut down to once a month. I talk to the psych doctor about my family and stuff like that.”

Squirrel’s one of those dudes with anger issues to go along with his drug addictions, but I was glad to hear that he’s doing well and staying clean. Back in the joint, inmates were taking bets on how long Squirrel would stay out of prison, but he’s proved them all wrong. He is taking his recovery seriously. I saw him putting a lot into RDAP, not just faking it to make it like so many did.

One thing does piss Squirrel off in his recovery though. “Not being able to travel,” he says. “I am limited to just this part of Texas. I tried going to Florida and it’s a big deal. Just for a week, but they are pretty much making me stay in my district. I can go down to Houston, but I can’t go up as far as Dallas. That’s the biggest obstacle for me, just staying here. I feel like I'm stuck in this part of Texas.”

But at least he’s not stuck in prison. 

Some of my other fellow graduates have experienced different problems in recovery. In prison, everything is routine and static. On the outside, anything can happen. Life is never smooth and always throws you a curveball when you least expect it. Dealing with family issues and tragedy can be trying, especially when you’re a former addict.

“I was gone for ten years.” Mendoor Smith, a 42-year-old from Waterloo, Iowa who was in on a marijuana charge, tells The Fix. “When I went in, my youngest was a year old. My oldest was 10 and my second oldest was 7. When I got out, my two oldest boys were grown men. When I would talk to my two older boys, it was difficult. You don’t want to jump in and be too hard. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too lenient. It’s a hectic balancing act. My youngest son just graduated from high school, but my oldest son was murdered in May.”

This was a traumatic event for Mendoor, who I remember as a very intelligent and articulate man who would spend hours reading and analyzing his own past to see where he went wrong. It’s a travesty that he served 10 years for marijuana, a drug that is, for all intents and purposes, semi-legal now, but Mendoor took it all in stride and was actually a leader in the RDAP community. When he spoke, prisoners listened. Life takes its turns, but you have to keep on living.

“My son was basically following in the path of what I laid down before I went to prison,” Mendoor says. “It was a hard blow because I took that personally. I was a part of the problem by removing myself from his life due to my life choices, and the result was his life being taken.” This is a sobering reality for any father, but one that Mendoor holds himself accountable for. He hasn’t used it as an excuse to go back to using, although he has indulged in a beer or two during his recovery. 

“Relapse is a part of recovery and everyone understands that,” he says. “There’s always temptations that will be there, as far as with alcohol or things of that nature, from just moving around and being out and about. I have had a drink, but as far as it stunting my movement forward, I have completely removed myself from people, things and places that would affect me on a harder scale as opposed to a few beers.”

Recovery means different things for different people. I have struggled with alcohol use since my release from prison—indulging and then abstaining. I tell myself that since I am not using drugs, I am good. A lot of former addicts tell themselves the same thing. It’s a choice in recovery, just like how some choose to smoke endless packs of cigarettes and drink Red Bull or coffee all day. We all have our vices in recovery. Who is to say what is the lesser evil?

“I haven’t used any drugs at all, but I’ve thought about it,” Benjamin Sheputis, who hails from St. Louis, Missouri and did close to three years for a meth case, tells The Fix. “There’s been times I’ve been tempted to. But I’ve come too far. I’m 30 years old and I started using back when I was 13 years old. Smoking weed, doing meth, I’ve done it all. Weed, coke, meth, heroin. My drugs of choice were weed and meth, but when I got into my early 20s, I got into heroin. And that’s what really did me in there. I was hospitalized for overdose three times. One of the times, I died. They had to use a defibrillator to bring me back. I was out of control. Each time I left the hospital, I went home and got high again.”

But Ben Jammin’, as we called him in the RDAP unit, took the program seriously. He was sick of the life and ready for recovery. He wasn’t afraid to speak up in the program and used to do a ton of upbeat rituals—little plays and skits that participants were required to do, but most inmates dreaded. Ben Jammin’ used to volunteer his time and efforts to help others come up with ideas for the rituals.

“I think about RDAP stuff,” he tells The Fix. “I don’t do any RSAs (Rational Self Analysis), the little technique they taught us, but I do remember to watch for the danger signs. Like when I start having euphoric recall and start thinking about the good times of using and getting involved with that type of activity, I realize that’s dangerous thinking right there.”

I think all successful RDAPPers have remembered their lessons. That’s what has helped us stay free. Because with ex-offenders, its more than just taking drugs. With us, the criminal activity goes right along with it. Drugs to us equates the criminal lifestyle. It’s the be-all and end-all. That’s why the drug tests, checks by our POs and being monitored is necessary, even though it can get frustrating at times. It’s a constant reminder of how precarious our position as ex-convicts can be.

“Walking the probation down wasn’t too hard,” Ben Jammin’ says. “I kept my head down and did what I had to do. My biggest issue was actually taking the piss test. I had an issue with pissing in front of somebody. When I got to the halfway house, they violated me because I couldn’t piss for the guy. They almost sent me back on that. I wasn’t dirty. I just couldn’t piss for the guy. It was frustrating. I was doing the right thing. I just had a problem with taking the piss test.”

I’ve experienced the same problem at times, but I’ve always managed to get it done. Just like Squirrel, Mendoor and Ben Jammin’. We have been successful in our reentry. Jumping through the hoops and keeping our addictions in check. Our recovery hasn’t been perfect, but we are still out here, two years later. We are beating the odds. There’s been some slip-ups, but we are moving forward and living our lives crime and drug free.

Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. He most recently wrote about crystal meth becoming the new crack. He also writes for Vice. He has a book out—The Supreme Team.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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