The Art of Surviving Prison, by Jeff Grant
This article appeared in Greenwich Country Capitalist Issue #52 and all of Weston Magazine Group’s fourteen titles in Connecticut, NYC, the Hamptons, Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester.
I THOUGHT I WAS LUCKY – one of the chosen. It was 1992; I was a young, successful corporate/real estate lawyer living in Rye, New York. My law firm was located in Mamaroneck–about a mile from our home–and so was a restaurant I owned. I would soon be elected to
the local school board. I drove a big BMW, my family vacationed four or five times a year. I thought I was bulletproof.
One day, while I was playing basketball with my biggest client, I rup- tured my Achilles tendon. In the course of rehabilitating from the injury, I became addicted to prescription narcotics. I never meant for it to happen– but it did. For over ten years I took painkillers almost every single day. Day after day, little by little, they cut away at my soul and ate away at my judg- ment. If I’d had the ability to pull back and look at my life from a distance, I would have seen the compromises I was making–the physical changes, the mood and behavior issues and all the money problems. I was miserable even if I didn’t necessarily appear that way–my weight had ballooned up to 285 pounds. I was vomiting blood from anxiety. I was spending much more money than I was making. As I took more and more pills, I showed up for fewer and fewer client meetings.
One day, my office manager came to me and told me we weren’t going to make payroll that week. I didn’t understand how that could have been possible. I had been in business as a lawyer almost twenty years–and de- spite all the problems and all the madness, the firm had grown to become one of the most successful law practices in Westchester County. We were bringing in millions of dollars a year–but we were out of cash. I could have called a friend and asked for help–or called my bank–but the drugs wouldn’t let me focus. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil.
I told my office manager to borrow the money from the firm’s cli- ent escrow account. She asked me if I was sure that’s what I wanted to do, and I told her to do it. And with two keystrokes of a computer, my fate was sealed. Racked with shame and guilt, my painkiller use
escalated and I was really out of control.
After Sept. 11th, I couldn’t think and couldn’t work–I had lost clients and staff. I was in this pit of denial and looking for a way out. There were commercials on TV and the radio offering low-interest loans un- der the SBA loan program for businesses that had been adversely affect- ed by the tragedy. I called and they told me that I qualified for a 9/11 loan. But I was so desperate–and the pills were clouding my judgment so much–that I embellished my loan application to make sure I got the loan anyway. In a few weeks the loan came through and I thought I was on track to save my law firm. But it didn’t help–within a few very short months it became clear that I was going to lose my law license and was going to be disbarred from practicing law.
In July 2002, I had no more fight left in me; I called my ethics attorney and told him to resign my law license for me. That night, after my wife and kids went to sleep, I sat down in the big easy chair in our den and swallowed an entire bottle of the painkillers. I just wanted the pain and the madness to stop.
A few days later I checked into the Acute Care Unit of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan. There was no way of knowing then that instead of my life ending, a new life had begun. I made it through seven weeks of rehab and started the arduous journey on the road to recovery. I went to my first recovery meeting the first night out of Silver Hill Hospital. I raised my hand and said, “My name is Jeff, I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict, and I need a sponsor.”
We moved to Greenwich about a year later – perhaps the wealthiest community in the country. I had lost my career, my money, I lost our home in foreclosure, and my marriage was soon to end. But I was staying sober. One morning, after 20 months of sobriety, I received a call from the FBI. The agent told me that there was a warrant out for my arrest in connection with my fraudulent statements on the 9/11 loan. I made full restitution and was sentenced to eighteen months in Federal prison.
HERE’S HOW the designation process works in the Federal prison system– the day your name comes up you are designated by your security level, lowest to highest, and given a bed. I had a security level of “zero” – so I could have been designated to a camp anywhere within 500 miles of our apartment in Greenwich. But on the day I was designated there were no beds in camps in this area–so, I was designated to a Low Security Prison. On the inside there was one former lawyer–that would be me–two former doctors, five former stockbrokers, and 1500 drug dealers.
On Easter Sunday 2006, I reported to Allenwood Low Security Corrections Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania. A guard came out and I showed him my court orders–he did not seem happy about my com- ing in on Easter Sunday. As we went through the metal door he spun me around, held my hands behind my back and slapped handcuffs on them. I had been anticipating this moment for over a year and not once did I consider that I would have to be handcuffed. At that moment I had my first inkling of how little I knew about surviving in prison.
I was escorted to a bulletproof glass teller’s cage behind which was a guard who asked me for my “register number.” I had no idea what that was–I’d never heard that term before. He asked me for it again and when I didn’t know he came out and taped a number on my clothes. That was my Federal Bureau of Prisons register number, and it became my identity.
Next, I was brought to a section called R & D–Receiving & Discharge– and it felt very much like its title–a place for FedEx packages. I was processed and then told to strip naked. They took all my clothes and put them in a box to ship back home. While I was standing naked in this cold room, on a cold cement floor, a man entered who I would later learn was the Head Lieutenant. He basically ran the day-to-day operations of the prison. He looked me up and down, and then asked me if I was the lawyer. I told him no, but that I used to be one. He seemed pleased with that answer. He then told me that there were 1500 men on his compound, and I was to be the only lawyer. There were some jailhouse lawyers working out of the library. He told me that I’d have no problems on his compound if I stayed out of other people’s legal business and I took no money or favors from another inmate. He told me that I was a short-stayer and he suggested I just do my time and go home without a problem. He asked me what I thought of that? I was standing there naked. I told him that making a few dollars from other inmates was the last thing on my mind.
I was given an orange jumpsuit to put on, re-cuffed and marched across the compound to the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit, Solitary). It was a time- honored tradition at Allenwood to hoot and holler at new inductees as they were being led through the compound to the SHU on their first day. I certainly didn’t understand why people were hollering at me. The guards never told me where I was going or why. When I got to the SHU, it looked like something out of the worst prison movie I had ever seen–dark and dimly lit, with rows of metal doors with tiny holes in them. I was put in a rubber lined holding cell, re-stripped and re- searched. I guess they were satisfied that I hadn’t picked up any weapons or contraband in the 300-foot walk from R & D.
I was never told where I was or why I was there. I didn’t know if this was what the entire prison was like, if it was a holding area, or how long I would be there. Inside the cell was a narrow bunk bed–barely wide enough for a grown man’s shoulders–a combination toilet and sink, a desk and a chair. And there I met my first “cellie”–a black man, around 50 years old, with dreadlocks down to his waist. When I came in, he didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. He just pointed to the upper bunk. I understood – that was mine.
His first words came about ten minutes later when he told me to move fast. The sound of a cart moving down the hall meant we had no time to lose. The slot on the metal cell door opened, and very quickly, four covered trays of food slid in through the slot. I understood what he meant by moving fast. If we didn’t catch the trays they would have dropped to the floor and the food would have spilled all over. He caught each tray and quickly handed them to me. I put them on the desk. We sat on the floor, dividing the dinner between us. I had already decided that I was going to lose the forty pounds I had put on in the months I was waiting to go to prison. I looked in the trays, and saw there was a little meat of some sort, and lots of bread, potatoes and rice. Starches were apparently the mainstay of the diet–I asked him if he wanted my potatoes and rice. We became friends in no time. His name was Raoul.
Almost everybody who came to Allenwood was first brought to the SHU, Raoul explained. There was no way to know how long I’d be in the SHU, but Raoul suspected that I wouldn’t have to wait long: first timer, middle age, and most importantly, white. I later learned that some inmates are kept in the SHU “waiting for a bed” thirty days or longer. I only had to wait 16 hours before I was released onto the compound. I was shoved out the door of the SHU without any other instructions than to report directly to the laundry. It was about nine o’clock in the morning, bright daylight, and my eyes were trying to readjust after having been in a dungeon for the past day or so.
I got to the laundry and knocked on the big metal industrial door– my big rap was much louder than I intended. The door opened a sliver and a head popped out to tell me that I would have to wait for “the move” before I could gain entry. I had no idea what that meant, but after the door closed there was no way that I was going to knock on that door again. In about fifteen minutes, a siren went off and people started scurrying around all over the place. This, I understood, was “the move.” The door popped open, I stepped inside and I was first in line. I presented the clerk with the papers I had been given in the SHU– he sized me up for a uniform, t-shirts, shoes, a laundry bag, duffel, sheets, blanket, towels, a soap kit, and just about everything I would need to make my stay at Allenwood complete. Union A, Cube 25, Upper Bunk would be home for the next thirteen and a half months.
I WAS RELEASED from prison in 2007 and had to do a stint in a halfway house, home detention and then three years of Federal probation. I also had court ordered drug and alcohol counseling. It was my counselor–a former Catholic Priest turned drug counselor–who recommended to me that I rebuild my life through volunteerism. I called my old rehab, Silver Hill Hospital, and asked them if I could come interview for a volunteer position–they told me to come over that day. I fully disclosed everything that had happened in the past few years. I was nervous. I figured that if my own rehab wouldn’t take me for a volunteer job, who in the world would ever let me work for them?
Two hours later my phone rang and I was a recovery volunteer for Silver Hill Hospital. This led me to becoming a volunteer house manager at Liberation House in Stamford–a residential rehab where guys are sent in- stead of being sentenced to prison. Next was Family ReEntry, a nonprofit serving the ex-offender communities in Bridgeport and New Haven, the first organization that asked me to serve on its Board of Directors. The first project I worked on at Family ReEntry was with my girlfriend, Lynn Springer–who is now my wife; we converted a blighted inner-city block in Bridgeport into the largest privately owned public use park and garden in the State of Connecticut. It is an oasis in the ‘hood – just beautiful.
All this time we were living in Greenwich and attending recovery meetings – and I became known as the “prison guy.” I was sharing my journey of going to prison, surviving prison, and staying sober through the entire experience. Soon guys who had white-collar legal problems were seeking me out, and since then I’ve met with hundreds men in various stages of going to or coming back from prison.
I had no idea that it was going to turn into a ministry – I was just putting one foot ahead of another. I went to Chris Tate, a Reverend at the Second Congregational Church which Lynn and I were attending in Greenwich, and told him that I was searching for something more meaningful. He recommended that I apply to seminary. I told him that I thought that was a little crazy–for one thing, I was a Jew (I’ve been baptized since). I asked him how I would ever get accepted to a seminary with my story? But, he told me that seminaries are in the redemption business and that I should apply. And I did. I was accepted to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the preeminent urban seminary in the world–and went to school there for the next
three years, earning a Masters of Divinity.
A few months later, while still working with white-collar families in Greenwich and doing inner city reentry work in Bridgeport, I accepted an offer from Pastor Hopeton Scott at the First Baptist Church of Bridgeport to become Assoc. Minister and Director of Prison Ministries. From there, Lynn and I founded the Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse & Children Project, the first ministries in the United States created to support the families of people accused or convicted of white-collar and other nonviolent crimes. Christ Church Greenwich has become a second home for our prison ministries, and is important in our mission to foster communication between the inner city and white-collar communities suffering in silence.
We still spend the majority of our time in the inner city, but we find our work with white-collar families equally as important. These spouses and children are innocent victims in situations not of their own doing, where they have usually not been independently represented legally, and often been left penniless, homeless and shunned by their communities. For this new class of victims, we assemble teams of ministers, advocates, lawyers, counselors and other compassionate people to protect them and get them safely through to a new life in a new family dynamic on the other side of prison. As I see it, the big- gest tragedy of all about white-collar and nonviolent crime is not how big the matter is, or sensationalized the headlines–it is in our failure to see it as a human story, with real people, real brokenness, and real families left behind.
I received a call from a former hedge-funder I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. He looked like the weight of the world was off his shoulders; he’d lost thirty pounds, and had a smile ear to ear. He looked nothing like the guy I remembered. He told me that he had been to prison and wanted my help in finding a new career. Now, he’s in school to become a drug counselor.
Most white-collar criminals can’t go back to their old lives and careers, so what choice do they really have? Why not embrace a completely new life, with new options and new opportunities? The most fortunate are those who figure out that their attempts to solve problems in isolation did not work, and that they no longer have to go it alone.
Since the publication of this article, Jeff was appointed as Executive Director of Family ReEntry, a criminal justice nonprofit with offices and programs in eight inner city Connecticut communities. He is the first person in the United States formerly incarcerated for a white-collar crime to be elected as CEO of a major criminal justice organization. He also continues to minister to individuals and families with white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues, for whom he hosts an online confidential support group on Monday evenings.