Nearly five full months have passed since my wife, Carole, picked me from the federal prison in Atwater on August 13, 2012 and drove me to the halfway house in San Francisco. When I stepped into the car, she passed me an iPhone 4S. It was far smaller than the Motorola cellphone that I used back in 1987, when my journey through America’s prison system began. I didn’t know how to use the iPhone, but I was enthusiastic and eager to learn.
In the days to follow, we purchased a MacBook Pro and iMac computers so that I could resume the work that I’d been doing during the final decade of the quarter century that I served. While in prison, I did not have access to technology. In fact, one federal prison in California that held me would’ve charged me with a disciplinary infraction if I used an electronic typewriter for writing “personal work.” Authorities only authorized typewriter use for “legal work,” which they defined as correspondence with the judicial system. Accordingly, I did all of my work by writing in longhand. Use of cellphones would not only result in a disciplinary infraction, but possibly new criminal charges as well.
Prohibitions against using technology were particularly frustrating for me because I aspired to build a career as a writer. As I wrote in earlier posts for California Forward, my quarter-century odyssey through prison began with a commitment to work toward reconciling with society. After completing academic coursework that led to my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I began writing for the purpose of bringing more awareness to America’s prison system. That work led to the publication of numerous books, including my newest, Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term.
Technology has changed considerably during the 25 years that I served. I read extensively during my term of incarceration, but reading about technology felt a bit like reading about typing. Regardless of how much I read, I wouldn’t grasp the power of technology until I started using it. Forget the power, I don’t even understand the language of technology. For example, I never understood what people meant when they spoke of a “browser.” In fact, I just asked my wife to define a browser, and when she described it as a program that would allow me to access the Internet, I gave her a blank stare.
“But I thought the browser was the little text box on top of the screen, where I type in what I’m looking to find on Google.”
“No honey,” she said. “That’s the URL bar.” Clearly I had much to learn.
My transition into society was not complete, as I was scheduled to serve six months in the halfway house before I could take the next step, a step that would require six months in home confinement, which will begin in February. While in the halfway house, authorities permitted me to use my iPhone, but rules did not allow for the use of a computer. I kept my computers at the office where I worked, or at my wife’s house, where I could spend weekends. During office hours of free time or while on my weekend home pass, I learned much more about how to use technology in ways that would help spread my message.
The message I deliver is consistent: I aspire to share the lessons I learned from studies, observations, and personal experiences while being locked inside federal prisons for 9,135 days. I no longer need to use a pen and paper. Instead, I now use modern applications like the latest version of Microsoft Word. I also use email, texting services, and all forms of social media to spread my message. This liberty to communicate with the world represents one of the privileges I cherish most since my release from prison. It changes the way that I work and increases my reach in ways that were incomprehensible to me while I served my sentence inside.
I no longer write by hand. Instead, I begin each morning by posting messages to a public Facebook page. Since I’ve been free, I’ve built a following of 1,421 “likes.” I then post to Twitter, where 1,334 people now follow my posts. During the day, I frequently respond to questions about the prison journey on Quora, where a single answer I made has resulted in more than 53,000 views. The level of distribution that I receive from social media amazes me, and it all feeds into the website I make available to offer services for different markets pertaining to the criminal justice system.
While in prison I devoted many hours each day toward writing, as I have a responsibility to help more people understand America’s prison system. Now that I’m free, I have an additional responsibility, which is to help others understand complications associated with reentry. Preparations I made while inside opened numerous opportunities for me upon release, but few other prisoners emerge with values, skills, and resources necessary to transform their lives into law-abiding, contributing citizens.
Technology is helping me to spread this message, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to build a career around this cause. It allows me to make some sense out of the decades I served.