Reprinted from Forbes.com
There are too many stories, false stories I might add, about the cushy lives of white collar offenders behind bars. While prison is indeed a punishment, it is the least of all the punishments an offender receives … but for their families it is the ultimate punishment.
I met Jeff Grant in New York’s Grand Central Station this month to talk about this issue. Grant, a convicted white collar felon, who after prison earned a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and is now Baptist minister and the Director of Progressive Prison Project / Innocent Spouse & Children Project, ministering to families in the Bridgeport/Greenwich, CT area whose loved ones are incarcerated.
“I work in drug infested neighborhoods,” Grant said, “and I also visit families on their “back-country” estates as they contemplate ‘Dad’ going to prison. Working in both environments has enlightened me to where true family strength lies.”
Grant was a lawyer in his previous life but threw that away when he admittedly falsified paperwork on a small business loan claiming damages after the 9/11 attacks. “I abused painkillers, then my final act (crime) showed what a shambles my life had become.” Grant pleaded guilty and began his transformation during a 14 month prison term beginning in April 2006.
“I learned to compare my time in prison with that of Biblical exile; it was a transforming experience,” Grant said regarding his time in the Allenwood Low Security Federal Prison in White Deer, Pennsylvania, “I learned that the things people are most afraid of are often the very things that wind up being the most helpful to them. It was in my case; prison saved my life.”
A recent article about Grant in the online hedge fund magazine Absolute Return would have you believe he is a counselor to former finance titans heading to prison, but more than that he is an observer of human behavior.
“I purposely split my time between those families affected by drug related crimes, in poorer neighborhoods, and white collar cases in upscale Connecticut and New York. The difference in how these two family types react to a loved one going to prison is striking.”
Grant noted that there is great pain on families left behind in both drug and white collar cases, but he has found stronger bonds in the poorer neighborhoods. Those families who have a member involved in white collar crimes tend to withdraw from society, pull their children out of school and feel shunned by their friends. “In the white collar world, appearance is everything. But in “the hood” survival is everything,” Grant said of his working observations.
Grant recalled a case where a father of a family in Bridgeport who had been arrested on drug charges and the reaction of the community was immediately one of “What can we do?” Typical meetings he has in such cases involve multiple members of the community as well as immediate family who mobilize to make sure the family is taken care of … food, support, even assurances of work for the spouse left behind are all part of the discussion. There is no time for embarrassment or gossip, the crisis affecting the family is front and center.
When inmates return home, the same support group works to find him/her a job, a place to live and resources to start life anew. In fact, a return from prison is viewed as a homecoming to be celebrated. There is a realization that a debt has been paid and life goes on. However, this is not the case in most white collar crime situations.
In contrast, Grant recalls encounters with people indicted or awaiting prison on white collar related charges asking to meet in obscure locations, alone. Their voices have lost their strength, their posture slumped and the isolated, depressed life they are living is written on their face.
“We have a certain view in our society of who is privileged and who is impoverished,” Grant told me, “but when the indictment comes down, the roles reverse and so-called privileged learn new lessons in suffering. That’s what makes the ProgressivePGR -0.34% Prison Project so unique and vital for both communities.”
In speaking with many white collar felons over the years, Grant’s words ring true. My own incarceration and recovery from the prison experience, which is still ongoing, has been no different .. and I’m 10 years removed from the experience.
It is hard to know where the shame of prison comes from, because I do not recall any instruction prior to prison about how one should react to the experience. Shame just comes naturally to some in certain situations … a pending prison sentence seems to be one of those.
Men and women returning from prison have a difficult time reuniting with their family. I am often approached by people seeking advice about family, jobs and their own mental health. I rarely have any good advice except to tell them that returning to their previous profession behind a desk is most likely out of the question. As I told one man emerging from prison, “I’ll tell you everything I’ve learned but just realize we’re in the same boat, I just happen to be sitting in the front of the boat.” That view has been a difficult one to relay to those coming after me.
“It is a blessing for us to help families realize that they’ve done nothing wrong and to help the ex-offenders understand they have paid their debt,” Grant said of those lost white collar souls. “I have found that it is the embarrassment of being labeled a ’felon‘ that drives many into a life of obscurity. However, there has to be a return to life again,” and that is where Grant sees his mission.
“If we choose, we have another mission…we can actually start to build a community to talk about these issues without fear, shame and remorse; a community of rebuilding our lives together,” Grant said of his initiative to work with families and inmates.
As we finished our coffee, Grant stood and hugged me as many others have done who have gone through this lonely experience. It is a brotherhood of those who have had everything and lost it all because of the self inflicted wound of a felony. “I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers,” he said, “it’s all about starting the conversation.”
Here we go.
For more information on Rev. Jeff Grant and the Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project, go to: prisonist.org.