Any woman in a relationship with a man in prison can attest to the fact that there will, unfortunately, be many in their families and inner-circle of friends who don’t approve of their relationships. Many who are critical of these relationships, however, are not coming from a place of experience or personal interaction with the incarcerated man, and therefore would give them a credible basis on which to judge him as a person — no. Rather, they operate from the standpoint of preconception, bias, and prejudice toward him — and anyone who is in his shoes — based solely on the fact that he is incarcerated. Simply put, they believe their friend or family member who is in this relationship can do much better, particularly with someone who is not locked up.
This is unfortunate because the fact of the matter is many good people reside behind bars — yes, I just said that. Most of us came to prison while in our addiction; this, however, is not nor was not reflective of who we are at our core. When forced to confront ourselves in a place of confinement such as prison, we tend to come to a place of honesty, growth, and for many of us maturity. We are in touch with ourselves and possess more qualities to offer in relationships than ever before; all we desire from those in society is a chance to be judged on who we are today. Unfortunately, many people disallow us this opportunity.
How sad it is that women who are in love with men in prison are denied the opportunity to talk to their girlfriends or family about their latest visit, phone conversation, or the amazing drawing, card or letter she recently received from her man. She knows any mention of him will be met with a scathing rebuke by some in her inner-circle. So, she is forced to keep it all to herself.
Why does she stay? they wonder. Why not leave him and find someone out here? they’ll ask. She tries to tell them she has met the man who understands her like no one else; that he is caring, sweet, and doesn’t judge her like many others do. She pleads with people she loves to just give him a chance to show he’s a good guy, but they’re not interested. Their minds are made up. As a result, she again shuts down and keeps them from her relationship lest they bring her down.
Here’s what I have learned: People with hardline positions who are not willing to have their positions challenged through experience are not going to budge one bit. They are intellectually lazy and emotionally stubborn. You can try to convince them to see something differently in the most direct or subtle ways, and they will refuse to be open-minded. So, for women in this type of relationship, when it comes to trying to get them to accept your man the way you see him — as a person deserving of a second chance — I would offer one rhetorical question: why even bother? You are wasting your time, energy and effort in trying to move an “immovable object.”
The best approach that will provide you with the most peace and serenity is to accept that they will be who they are; they will not give your man the benefit of the doubt. But, truthfully, that’s not what matters. What does matter is the fact you are happy and secure in your relationship. What should keep you going is the confirmation you get every time you talk to him, visit him, or receive a letter expressing exactly how he feels about you, how he tells you he can’t wait to spend every day outside of prison with you by his side. Let these sentiments carry you and comfort you in the midst of the unwarranted judgement and condemnation from those around you. Remember this: what others think about you is none of your business. What ultimately matters is what you think about yourself and your relationship. If both give you peace and happiness, then rest in that. Why bother trying to convince others they should feel the same way?
For too many years of my life I assumed my actions affected me and only me. So what if I chose to drink away my pain? So what if I messed up, got arrested, and got sentenced to many years in prison: I’m the one doing the time, or so I thought. I couldn’t see beyond myself and the consequences I’d reaped to see the pain in the faces others who love me — not to mention in all the victims I created while living my life of crime and addiction.
My parents did the very best they could to raise my brother, two sisters, and me. They worked hard, bought us presents for every birthday and Christmases and spent quality time with all of us on a daily basis. We were never considered middle class from a financial standpoint, but I never felt as though I lacked anything that my middle-class friends had.
I added this context to show how my actions were strictly of my own volition — my parents raised us with values. So, when I came to prison at 19, my parents should have felt no guilt for my predicament; but what do you think actually happened? Naturally, any parent is going to question why their son (or daughter) went wayward, what they think they could have done differently to change the path I’d taken. My decisions tortured them, kept them up many a night, and brought them to experience agony they did not deserve.
They were now put in the unfortunate position of visiting their son in this god-forsaken place, often times being treated like a criminal themselves when they came to visit. They were compelled to now support me, not by giving me money for a birthday or Christmas but helping me buy commissary, hygiene products, and paying for phone calls. They did not deserve this — they never did. Now, they are both gone, and this is the last place they were able to hug their son.
My twin brother, sisters, nieces and nephew have likewise had to come into prison for 15 years (plus three more on a previous prison stint) if they wanted to see me. They are forced to celebrate my birthdays by sending a card — not taking me out to dinner or otherwise. If they want to talk, they have to pay $4.80 for 30 minutes. My nieces and nephew have not had their uncle at birthdays, Christmases, graduations, and so much more. I have been forced to watch them grow up through pictures. My family has been nothing but law-abiding citizens their entire lives and by no means deserve to be subjected to this situation. But because they love me, they would never abandon me. They do not deserve what my actions have put them through.
My victims and their families did not ask to have their lives shattered by the tragedy that I solely produced 15 years ago. Their lives were cut short, never able to reach the full potential they possessed. Future generations of their families will never meet them and come to know the beautiful souls they had. My addiction, recklessness, and complete selfishness severely altered their lives forever. They were doing everything right; I was doing everything wrong, and now they are not here but I am. How is that fair? I obviously cannot answer that, but what I can say with absolute certainty is they — none of them — deserved what I did to them.
For many of us in prison, because we are the ones physically secluded from society and deprived of any semblance of freedom, we equate this with the notion that we’re the only ones affected by our bad decisions. But as I have outlined here, this is simply a misguided, narrow-minded viewpoint. Not only our victims, but also our families, significant others, friends, and many others are affected by the costly decisions we made. Coming to prison is a burden to so many people who didn’t deserve it. The sooner I was able to realize this truth, the sooner I was able to start to rehabilitate. Cognitive classes, church, and educational courses are all positive ways to spend one’s time in prison, but without coming to terms with the massive ripple effect left in the wake of our crime and subsequent prison stay, true rehabilitation and accountability will be impeded.
Many have exclaimed, “Addiction is NOT a disease — it’s a choice!” A disease, they’ll say, is something that you have no control over; it suddenly afflicts you when you least expect it and wreaks havoc on your life. People don’t do anything to bring about disease in their lives. Addiction, on the other hand, is something that people choose to engage in. No one makes anyone drink their first drink — or any drink thereafter. No one is forced to do drugs at any point in their life, yet drug addicts, they’ll point out, choose to participate in drug-seeking behavior, hang out with other drug addicts, and repeatedly make irrational, counterproductive decisions that invariably result in self-destruction. How can this possibly be tantamount to someone who has a disease that they didn’t ask for?
As I noted in my previous blog entitled Understanding Addiction, addiction takes root in the midbrain — otherwise known as the limbic system. The limbic system is home to what is known as the pleasure pathway — receptor sites that release chemicals that make us feel good when we engage in pleasurable behaviors like eating, sex, playing, etc. What differentiates an alcoholic/addict from a non-addict is the way in which this neural pathway is activated and affected by drugs and alcohol. What causes this is extremely complex, but what is consistently found lies in genetics.
Studies show that between 40 – 60% (DSM V) of the variability in alcoholics comes from parents where at least one has also suffered from alcoholism. When it comes to drug addicts, this variability hovers around 50% (DSM V). These findings were substantiated by countless identical twin studies that showed, despite being adopted into different homes where the environments were nurturing, wholesome, and drug/alcohol free, twins whose biological parents were addicted to alcohol were still more likely to develop alcoholism than others reared in those environments who were not born to such parents. The variances in studies are endless, but the result was the same: genetics play a profound role in addiction. But what does this have to do with it being considered a disease and not a choice?
Let’s look at diabetes, for instance, when we consider the affliction of disease. Diabetes results as a malfunctioning of the pancreas, which produces insulin. Either the body stops producing it altogether or in such low amounts that it is rendered ineffective to take in the nutrients from the food we eat. But what underlies diabetes? Why do people develop it? Well, a scant amount of unfortunate people are born with it or develop it as a child — this is known as Type One diabetes. But the vast majority of people develop Type Two diabetes as adults, which is attributable, in large part, to poor diet and lack of exercise. In other words, unhealthy lifestyle habits are predominately to blame for their disease. As a result, they go to a doctor who tells them to lay off certain fatty foods, start exercising, take a pill or insulin shots, etc. If they comply, they can go on to live good quality lives; if not, their condition will likely worsen, and death may ensue. Are choices involved in their prognosis? Did their lifestyle choices have anything to do with their disease onset? Yet, we don’t demonize and vilify them like we do an alcoholic or drug addict — why?
What I failed to mention in speaking about people who have diabetes is it’s not solely their poor lifestyle habits that doomed them to acquire a deadly disease. Think about it, some of the worst eaters and laziest people we know have never gained weight and will likely never get diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, or any other dreadful health affliction — but why? Again, we find ourselves back at the genetics argument. People who are born to parents who have had a history of certain diseases are inherently susceptible to developing those diseases during their lifetime, but the key determinant is one’s lifestyle. The lifestyle choices they make will either stave off the genetic predisposition or allow it to take root and fully manifest.
To compare, in the same way one’s pancreas has changed when diabetes sets in, an addict’s brain chemistry has been permanently altered. In the same way one goes to a doctor and is prescribed insulin and instructed to change lifestyle habits to live more healthily, an addict is prescribed Methadone, Antabuse, Suboxone, etc., and ordered to enter treatment to develop healthier lifestyle habits. In the same way, there is an onset and progression that can lead to death if diabetes not managed well — and so there is with drug and alcohol addiction. With so many similarities and congruency between the two, why do we criminalize one and sympathize with the other? Why do we hold firm that one is a choice that deserves punishment and the other a disease that deserves sympathy?
It’s no secret that most of us in prison (about 80% in fact) have been involved with and/or addicted to drugs and/or alcohol for many years, eventually leading us to where we are today. Many— if not virtually all of us — neglected our familial responsibilities, job obligations, parole or probation requirements, and essentially any expectations one would have for someone who desires to live a quality life in the free world.
For the myriad loved ones who have suffered unspeakable pain as we have continually let them down — most notably our children — while chasing and abusing our drugs of choice, it is often thought that we “chose” drugs and/or alcohol over our loved ones; after all, they’ll say “Why would you do it when you know it’s going to cost you everything?” They’ll reason that anyone can quit anything “if they really want to.” On its surface, this makes perfect sense, but underneath — in the realm of addiction — it’s much more complex.
Without getting too scientific, allow me to make a basic distinction: our rational thoughts (i.e. considering consequences, planning, goal-setting, restraining from instant gratification for delayed gratification, etc.), occur in the prefrontal cortex part of our brain. Addiction, however, manifests in the lower, most primitive part of our brain known as the limbic system. This is where our fight-or-flight system is, where our sexual appetite derives, and where our “pleasure pathway” is located. A hamburger is enjoyable because when we eat it, chemicals in this part of the brain are released, and the connection is made that hamburgers taste good. The next time we see or smell a hamburger, this part of the brain is ignited, and we feel drawn to eat the hamburger. We are inclined to engage in behavior that yields pleasure, thus we have a chemical/neural circuit known as the pleasure pathway.
This primitive part of the brain is where addiction becomes deeply rooted. The chemicals released from drugs and alcohol flood our pleasure pathway and have a very strong impact on the limbic system, but for the person who is more likely to become addicted due to a genetic predisposition, for instance, this reinforcement is much stronger. The reasons we use (i.e. to be more sociable, numb negative feelings, etc.) also factor into our likelihood of becoming addicted. What this reinforcement looks like in the brain of a non-alcoholic person who drinks an alcoholic beverage is, say, only four parts of the limbic system will be affected, whereas the alcoholic who drinks will experience a much stronger effect because nine areas of the brain are affected. Moreover, once the disease (it is a medical disease because 1) it has an onset, 2) it’s progressive, and 3) it can kill) sets in, the addict is triggered in the craving part of the limbic system when they see, smell, or are reminded in some way of their drug of choice. This is tantamount to someone who is very hungry being intensely stimulated when they walk down the street and smell barbecue smoke. Again, the pleasure pathway in the brain is more sensitized to drug and alcohol cues than someone who is not an alcoholic or drug addict.
Back to the rational part of the brain. When our “addicted brain” (limbic system) has been triggered by stimuli, our rational brain is chemically suppressed, severely reducing our capability of making logical decisions. Studies have shown the more emotional we are (taking place in our fight-or-flight system), the less we are able to use our rational brain. Therefore, when we’re angry we often do and say things we later regret. In the same way, when our addiction is ignited, we don’t have full access to our rational brain. Bypassing that liquor store in order to be home to eat dinner with the wife and kids makes all the sense in the world, but the brain chemistry that has been aroused by passing that liquor store makes that decision much more complex. Getting high to avoid stress spurs our brain in a way that makes us ignore any possible consequences that may come tomorrow or next week. Make no mistake, this is not to skirt responsibility or accountability for the damage and harm we’ve caused countless people who love us, but merely a brief explanation into what is underway in the brain that makes decision-making processes for the addict much more complex than the non-addict.
For the first twelve years of my incarceration I was convinced I had done everything I could to atone for my crime by honoring my victims’ lives as I had promised their families during my sentencing hearing. I had earned a BS in Sociology and MS in Psychology in pursuit of becoming a certified alcohol and drug counselor, just as I had vowed. I was proud of what I’d accomplished, yet I was profoundly mistaken in thinking I’d done all I could to honor my promise while in this circumstance. After getting involved with a new program offered here, I quickly learned there was much more I could do.
In October of 2015 I was approached by an inmate who mentioned he had “heard what [I] was in for” and wanted to know if I’d be interested in participating in an impaired driver victim impact panel. I eagerly agreed, knowing this would provide me with a rare opportunity to help others through highlighting the immense pain of my victims by sharing my story.
During our first panel there were approximately 40 inmates in attendance and two volunteers from the outside who had both been personally impacted by drunken drivers: one had lost her 28-year-old son and the other had been injured by a drunk driver. I sat and listened to these two courageous women speak to a room full of convicts about the unspeakable losses they’ve endured as a result of their tragedies. I simultaneously found myself stricken with shame to think about the painful scars I’d left on the survivors of my victims. Yet I felt humbled and encouraged to hear these women also speak about their ability to forgive the people who had taken so much from them. One woman expressed, “I can wake up and hate the man who has done this to me, but who does that really hurt? So instead, I choose to forgive and live.” It was silent in that room but for the intermittent sniffles from men who futilely tried to stifle their emotions. This was the first time I had come face-to-face with people who are living with the ever-present impact and trauma of losing someone dear to them, or surviving a drunken driving collision themselves. But there was another side.
Because I was recruited to participate in this inaugural meeting, I was also asked to share my story. I prepared intensely and meticulously for three weeks to ensure I didn’t fumble my words and could deliver them fluidly and clearly. Thankfully, I was able to meet my mark, but the true satisfaction came immediately afterward. The two women who had shared their powerful stories thanked me for telling mine. They told me that they wished more of “us” told our stories at impact panels because people outside need to also hear our perspective, especially when we are extremely remorseful and seek to make amends by spreading awareness. To know the victims of crime would be eager to work side-by-side with those of us who have victimized them, leaving them in unfathomable pain, was remarkable and humbling. It was in that moment that I came to understand the necessity of coming full circle in my own rehabilitation. Honoring my victims and collaborating with other victims is the most powerful way to further our shared goal — preventing further crime and victimization in our communties.
During my twelve plus years of incarceration I have seen many programs accesible to inmates: education, cognitive restructuring, substance abuse treatment, religious services of all kinds, etc., but all of these combined could not have brought me to fully reconcile what I’d done with where I wanted to go. There is no substitute for hearing, feeling, and witnessing the severe impact our actions have had on victims, their families and friends, and our communities. As grateful as I am for having had the rare opportunity to earn a formal education to aid me in becoming a productive, impactful member of my community, the empathy and insight gained from sharing my own story of tragedy and destruction has done more for my recovery than I ever imagined.
View Martin’s DUI Victim Impact Panel Speech below.