Prison, Freedom, Paradise
By Joel Thomas and M. Rutledge McCall, this is the inspirational, true story of a young man who went from college to sales management to prison …and then went on to establish one of the most unique physical training facilities on Wall Street while still in his 30s (no screen adaptation available at this time)…
Welcome to the Jungle, Baby…You Gonna Die!
I was given two options: go to state prison and do my full sentence, or go back to County and redo the program. All. Over. Again. All of it.
Imagine if you were told at the end of high school that you would have to do it all over again because you failed one big test. That was how it felt to me. Just the thought of the first time I had been sent back and my family was so disgusted with me they could barely look me in the eyes. But if I were to go back a second time, they would have nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with me. I would be an outcast, a pariah, the manipulator who could never come clean, poster boy of all losers, a daily, living example of how to kick a gift horse in the mouth.
But could I go to State prison for as much as four or five years—and come out as a felon? Could I go back to County and find guys like Danny and Jaime, who had protected me and tried so hard to keep me on the straight and narrow every single day in that vile, violent system…and then I get out and pull this crap? Did I spend close to a year of hard work in the County program only to face starting all over again because of one misstep on the outside after I finished and was released? Pride, ego, fear, defeat, all screamed NO!—no way would I subject myself to…to the detritus of myself.
I couldn’t do it over again. I wanted my life back but not if it meant going through the County program all over again. Sure, after I had completed the program and finished my first stint there, I was more positive than I had been probably my whole life, but I knew I didn’t have the internal fortitude to do what it would take to go through County again. I didn’t want to be at County at all—ever again! State was bad enough and the sentence would be maybe four, five times longer, but a year in County packed in that many years worth of violence.
I had no fight left in me for that.
* * *
My eyes bored listlessly into the short brown table that separated me from the lawyer. The room was small, stark, cold. His meaningless words echoed off of the bare walls. I fought through a haze of dejection, trying to string together some semblance of hope from the legalese.
Options, he kept saying. Options. Did I still have options, after all I had done? That sounded improbable. I felt confined, claustrophobic. As I tried to shake it off, I involuntarily kicked the table leg. My feet were in leg irons; the movement made an angry clanking sound.
He abruptly stopped speaking, and looked at me sharply, as if I was being disruptive.
He continued talking.
I looked at the ceiling, back at my cuffed hands, my mind wandering.
Why hadn’t it worked for me at County? What had I been missing? I honestly thought I had changed, because I had learned so much about myself there, about what I needed to work on, about my faults and shortcomings, needing to feel like a man who could take care of his family rather than being a man who was barely able to do so. A rich criminal, always looking over my shoulder? Or a depressed guy with a college degree that would net me $18 per hour—36 grand a year—to provide for a family of four? Fuck that shit. Fuck America.
…No—fuck me for getting myself into this mess!
A feeling of fear crept over me as I began to realize that I couldn’t trust myself. If I had become convinced, twice—along with professional, trained counselors—that I had grown, changed, become a new man, yet I had not…then who the hell was I? What was I? Would I always do the wrong thing? Always lie, deceive, deal? Was I genetically damaged goods? Too enthralled with the life of a drug kingpin? Well…maybe not “kingpin” so much, but doing pretty damn well compared to the squares struggling with impossible societal rules that no longer allowed a man to get ahead in fine fashion if he wasn’t born into wealth.
A few of the guys in County had tried valiantly to help me, but it was obvious I needed something else, something more, to really, truly change. Because that program, as good as I thought it had been, sure as hell hadn’t worked for me. But what would work? What would it take for a hardhead risk-taker like me?
The upside to County was far less time served and the felony would be downgraded to a misdemeanor upon successful completion of the program and no more arrests—for anything. Ever. But here was my problem: if I went through the County program for my last allowable time, I would never be the same when I got out. Because at 21, I was natural prey for the population in County and protection was expensive—on many different levels—and I couldn’t count on being lucky enough to find guys like Danny and Jaime a second time around. And if I did make it through without committing murder on some predator, I would come out as someone—something—else. Put me on Dilaudid or heroine or morphine because I’d be the living dead anyway. And as bad as that was, there was another downside to County: slip up just one time after release, like I did, even to say hi to a former friend you used to sell to who still uses, and I would go right back into County. Like I was facing now.
On the other hand, four or five years of my life gone after getting out of State? Even with early parole for good behavior it could be a three year stint—with a felony record and never being allowed to vote again. And forget getting a job and get used to living on the streets because nobody hires or rents to ex-felons. The only upside to State was that if I served my full sentence and refused early parole, I would have no release terms to adhere to, because I will have paid my debt to society. I could never be jerked back into the system for anything related to the same crime.
So, State, where I come out free and clear but lose five years of my life, can’t vote, can’t find a job, nowhere to rent, and I still have a daily fight for survival while I’m in, because I’m young enough to be natural prey there too? Or County, where I come out with an angry chip on my shoulder the size of a .44 magnum and can be yanked back in for any violation of any law?
It was a devil’s deal all around.
“Prison,” I said, answering out loud the thoughts running rampant in my mind.
The lawyer stopped talking.
“What?” he said, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Maybe I was punishing myself. Maybe I was giving my entire life a death sentence. I didn’t care. My life was pretty much over anyway. With nothing left to lose, you tend to become fearless.
If a man could convince himself that he has changed, yet he has enough crap in him that he will still lie, still game the system, still deceive, still deal, then he has not changed. He is still the same man, just with a more convincing smile. At that point, fearless is where a man like that needs to get to in order to stop BS-ing himself and everyone around him. If he genuinely wants to be a different man, a man unafraid of truth, a man unwilling to lie, a man hard set against wrong, a man who hews unwaveringly to a moral compass, then the old man in him must be crushed out of him completely. I wanted to be that kind of man. And I knew that because I hadn’t yet done what needed to be done—what I had been given chance after chance to do to become that man…then I had to be ready and willing to die if that’s what it would take to have even the tiniest hope of not just change, but of utter rebirth, of reemergence as the man I desperately wanted to be—had to be, for my future’s sake.
The decision that had wafted out of my jumbled thinking wasn’t exactly logical and I knew it wouldn’t make a lick of sense to the lawyer, but I knew it was what I needed. Either I was taking a leap of faith or a leap into a bottomless pit.
“I’ll stay in prison,” I said evenly.
He blinked in surprise. We looked at each other for a moment.
Going to prison for years as an alternative to reentering a 12-month behavior modification program would definitely be a hard way to learn a lesson, but I wasn’t new to that. I could sum up my whole life in four words: learning the hard way. County had been horrible. But anyone who has grown up with an abusive parent understands that practically everything else in life is easier after having lived in that kind of oppression. Having someone constantly lay hands on you, shove you into walls, jerk you out of the shower, debase you, belittle you…that kind of crap ratchets up your resiliency and toughness, if you survive it.
My stepfather had been dishing out hell on me long before I was old enough to even understand the comparison to prison. Prison, to me, would be a cake walk. And I sure as hell wouldn’t take my chances with County all over again.
“I don’t think you understand what you’re choosing,” the lawyer said.
Then he launched into a spiel about all the ways in which a felony would irreparably ruin my life.
What he didn’t know was that all my life I had been told by one authority figure after another that I needed to be better. But in challenging me physically with his onslaught of abuses, my stepfather had broken me mentally. As a broken man (essentially a child in a grownup body), I didn’t trust myself or anyone else. I had always fought myself just as hard as I’d fought the world. Maybe this war inside me was something prison could help put an end to. I knew I couldn’t live with me anymore and I had gotten to the place where I was willing to do anything if it would make me into a new me. I knew what I was choosing alright. I was choosing not to be placed in a jail system where my long-chained temper would finally blow and I’d kill someone.
Then it would be State prison for life.
The lawyer was still talking.
“You won’t be able to get a proper job. You will never be allowed to vote. They won’t let you—”
“—Give me my damn felony,” I cut him off, hard and even. “I earned it.”
He took a breath, let it out, looked down at the table, and nodded.
With that decision, I was about to be cut down to the most raw and vulnerable position a man can assume. It was do or die time.
And I’d have to do a stint in a hell called “Riker’s Island” before arriving at my final prison destination.