The worst moment of my life occurred about an hour after I told my young daughters that I was going to have to go to prison. As soon as they realized I wasn’t joking and that I would be leaving in a matter of weeks, the tears began and the three of us clung to one another in a teepee of complete misery. It was excruciating. I remember looking up at one point and thinking, “Is taking me away from these kids for 20 months the only way society can get its pound of flesh?”
Almost three years have passed since that awful night. I try to never think about it, but I often think about that question, especially after meeting other fathers in prison with young children at home. Fathers like my friend Mike.
Mike arrived at Cumberland Federal Prison Camp a few months after I did.
As soon as we met, we proudly swapped stories of our children. Mike beamed as he talked about his three kids. His oldest was in high school and his youngest was still in elementary school. Mike and I soon knew everything about each other’s kids. The thing I loved most about Mike was that he was as big of a wimp as I was; we almost never got through a conversation about our kids without one of us choking up. It became a running joke. One of us would tell a story or recount the previous night’s (always too brief) phone conversation with our kids and our eyes would begin to fill or our voice would start to quiver and the other one of us would invariably start laughing. “Stop, man, you’re killing me,” we’d say, and then we’d both start laughing maniacally. As you might imagine, crying is not prohibited in prison, but it is frowned upon.
Over the next year, Mike and I grew closer. Mike had a great, dark sense of humor. We trained service dogs together for our prison job and spent a lot of time sitting in the kennel out back watching the dogs play, staring at the mountains, and talking about anything and everything. I learned a lot about Mike’s crime. Like a surprising number of others I met, Mike was very open and candid about what led to his conviction.
Mike had pleaded guilty to fraud. He had not set out to steal people’s money, but that was what ended up happening after the market went south and he scrambled to catch up. Many of his investors didn’t lose any money, but some did and suffered as a result. Mike had diverted for personal use money that should have been invested on their behalf. He was no Bernie Madoff; Mike “stole” less than a million dollars.
From our conversations, I also learned about Mike’s upbringing. It was as upsetting and disturbing as anything I had heard from my inmate friends who were serving drug sentences. The adversity Mike had to overcome early in life did not excuse his crime, and Mike never offered it as an excuse, but it helped me understand why he might have made the bad choices he did. I am not a psychologist, but it seemed pretty obvious to me that Mike wanted to give his wife and kids the stability and security he did not know as a child.
For all our similarities and common interests, Mike and I were separated by one major fact. My sentence was 20 months while Mike’s was nine years. I had known from my work for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) that many nonviolent drug offenders received excessive sentences, but Mike’s sentence struck me as patently absurd. (Compare: Junk-bond king Michael Milken and Jordan Belfort, aka “The Wolf of Wall Street,” each served 22 months for much more serious frauds). Mike’s crime was serious but he was not a threat to the community and no risk to re-offend. A short prison term followed by community supervision would have been more than sufficient to deter others.
One of the things that struck me most about Mike’s sentence is that when I told friends and fellow advocates about it, many were unmoved. Some seem to reserve their sympathy for drug offenders or the indigent or defendants of color. Others have been so clearly jaded by reports of 20, 30, 40, and even 150-year sentences that 9 years simply doesn’t sound so bad. Finally, there were the usual voices saying, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” But this useless expression ignores the point, which is that the time frequently doesn’t fit the crime.
Nine years is a long time to spend in prison for a low-risk offender. And it’s an incredibly long time for young children to go without their parent, especially given the evidence showing how children of incarcerated parents suffer emotionally, financially, and behaviorally. As Mike spends another Father’s Day away from his kids, I doubt, as I did a few years ago about my children, whether sending Mike away so long was the best society could do.