Progressive Prison Project
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Our Week at The Nantucket Project 2013
Day Five: Nantucket, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013:
The Nantucket Project
Friday, September 27, 2012
“The Art of Surviving Prison”
Good afternoon. My name is Jeff Grant, I’ll start off by telling you three things about myself that might not be obvious by looking at me. First, I served almost fourteen months in a Federal Prison for a white-collar crime. Second, I am an alcoholic and drug addict. Third, I’m the Associate Minister and Director of Prison Ministries at The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport – a church in one of the roughest neighborhoods in one of the roughest cities in the country. I am also the Director of the Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse & Children Project, both based in Greenwich, Connecticut – which I am certain you know is one of the wealthiest communities in the country. These are the first ministries in the United States to support the families of persons accused or convicted of white collar and other nonviolent crimes. We’ll talk more about these ministries that my wife Lynn and I have founded in a little while.
Over the next ten minutes, I am going to tell you the story of how I was transformed from being a successful New York corporate attorney, by successfully surviving almost fourteen months in a Federal prison, into becoming an inner city minister – who also helps people accused or convicted of white collar crimes, and their families, through their own transformation stories.
I have one more admission to make up front – this is not my first time speaking at The Nantucket Project – although it is my first time presenting on the Main Stage. You see, I am an alumnus of The Nantucket Project Fellows Academy. Last year, when I was a 2012TNP Fellow, it was an honor to be alongside Sen. Bill Frist when he & I spoke at the Fellows Academy Lunch to kick-off the 2012 Nantucket Project.
And you know what? An amazing thing happened at that lunch! As soon as people found out that I was a prison minister, and that I had gone to prison, prison become the overarching theme of the luncheon!
I really shouldn’t have been surprised – the topic of prison seems to be everywhere now. It captures people’s imaginations. It reaches into their homes and affects their families and their lives. If I took a poll of the people in this room, and asked people to raise their hands if they had a friend or family member in prison, who has been to prison or in fear of going to prison – many of you, maybe even the majority of you, would raise their hand. The original Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black was an unmitigated hit this summer season. Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DeCaprio, comes out next month. Prison stories are gripping. Prison is topical. And Prison is personal.
I thank Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan for inviting me to be the first alumnus of The Nantucket Project Fellows Program to tell his story on the Main Stage..
It began when I suffered a sports injury in 1992. I was a young, successful corporate and real estate lawyer with all the trappings – big house in Westchester County, NY, Mercedes, and vacations to the Caribbean. You get the picture? Anyway, I was playing basketball with my biggest client when lightening struck and I ruptured my Achilles tendon. And in the course of the rehabilitation from that injury I got hooked on pain killers. I never meant for it to happen – but it did and for over ten years I took them almost every day of my life. The problem with taking pain killers – at least for me – was that it was insidious. Day after day, little by little, they cut away at my soul, ate away at my judgment. If I had had the ability to pull back and look at my life from a distance and see it in five or ten year slices, I probably could have seen how different everything looked over these different time periods. The compromises I was making. The physical changes. The mood and behavior issues. The money problems. It probably would have been obvious. But I couldn’t do that – instead, day by day the cumulative effect was imperceptible. I was miserable – my weight had ballooned to 285 pounds – I was vomiting up blood from anxiety. I was spending way more money than I was making. I was taking more and more painkillers. I stopped showing up for client meetings. The law firm was spinning out of control.
Until one day my office manager came to me and told me that we had a problem. She told me that we weren’t going to make payroll that week. How could that be possible? I had been in business as a lawyer almost twenty years – and despite all the problems, all the madness, the business had grown to become one of the most successful law practices in Westchester County. We were bringing in millions of dollars a year – something I still have no explanation for. But we were out of cash – I could have done a lot of reasonable things. I could have called a friend, I could have called the bank. But my mind was reeling, the drugs wouldn’t let me focus. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil. I told her to borrow the money from the firm’s client 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 key strokes of a computer, my fate was sealed.
I wound up borrowing and replacing client escrow funds a few more times – but the damage was done. As these things go, soon there would be a grievance against me that started out over something small – but my client escrow records would be subpoenaed and I would start a long three year battle to defend against the defenseless. Racked with shame and guilt, my pain killer use escalated and I got really out of control.
On Sept. 11th, when I saw the plane hit the second tower, I went into sheer madness. It was as if the world stopped spinning. I couldn’t think and I couldn’t work – I started to lose clients and staff. I was in a pit of denial and was looking for my way out. There were commercials on TV and the radio for small business loans for businesses that had been adversely affected by the tragedy – I called and described my problem. They told me that I qualified for a 9/11 loan. But even having qualified, I was just too desperate and stoned – and I embellished my loan application to make sure I got the loan. In a few weeks I did get the loan and I thought I was on track to save my law firm and start a new day. But it didn’t really help – within a few very short months, all the evidence had mounted and it became clear that I was going to lose my grievance case and was going to be disbarred from practicing law.
One day in July 2002 I had enough – I had no more fight left in me. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I called my lawyer and told him to throw in the white flag and resign my law license. That night, after my wife and kids went to sleep, I sat down in the big easy chair of the den in our house in Westchester, and tried to kill myself. I swallowed an entire bottle of pain killers. I just wanted the pain and the madness to stop.
I woke up a few days later in the Acute Care Unit of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT and there was no way of knowing then that instead of my life ending, that my new life had begun. I made it through seven weeks of rehab and started the long arduous but incredible journey of a road back to life through recovery. I went to my first AA meeting on my first night out of Silver Hill Hospital – and at that meeting I did exactly what I was instructed to do. I raised my hand and said, My name is Jeff, I’m an alcoholic and I need a sponsor. I met my first sponsor at my very AA meeting, and have attended almost 9000 AA meetings since then and have never again touched another drink or a drug. I am very proud to say that on August 10th of this year, I celebrated my 11th sobriety anniversary.
But, of course, we already know that there was more to my story. I did what any “sane person” would do with no money and no job – I moved my family to Greenwich, Connecticut – perhaps the wealthiest community in the country. There I became a very involved member of AA, and took on a lot of responsibilities and commitments. After all, recovery had saved my life. Over the first year or two, with so much wreckage to take care of – I had lost my career, my money, I lost our home in foreclosure, my marriage was in shambles. But recovery was my bedrock – I was staying sober.
One morning, when I had about 20 months of sobriety, I received a call from the FBI. The agent on the phone told me that there was a warrant out for my arrest in connection with my fraudulent statements on the 9/11 loan. I couldn’t believe it – it had been four years, I was now sober almost two years – and I couldn’t believe that anybody was looking at that loan. But one of the gifts was that I was able to face this as a sober man, and be there for my family, for my community and for myself sober.
I was sentenced to eighteen months in Federal prison. For those of you who don’t know how the designation process works in the Federal prison system, basically on the day your name comes up you are designated by your security level lowest to highest and given a bed kind of like checking into a hotel. I had a security level of “zero” – so I could have been designated to a camp anywhere within 500 miles of our home in Connecticut. 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. And that’s where I went. On Easter Sunday, 2006, I reported to Allenwood Low Security Corrections Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania. And soon found out inside that there was one former lawyer – that would be me – two former doctors, five former stockbrokers, and 1500 drug dealers. This was real prison and would be home for the next thirteen and a half months.
Among the many, many things I learned about successfully surviving prison are two main points. The first is that everything – and I mean everything is about respect in some shape or form. In prison, respect basically comes from keeping your mouth shut most of the time, and believing none of what you hear and half of what you see. It’s amazing how much I learned about respect in prison – respect for others, respect for life, respect for possessions, respect for God. It’s as if I had been sleepwalking my entire life and never had my eyes open to the human condition or what it took to be free, until that freedom was taken away from me. The other thing main point I want to share today about successfully surviving prison is to a have a plan. Before I went to prison I read the works of great leaders who survived captivity, and read about their ability in prison to manifest control over bodies and attitudes – and their abilities to help others. Even before I went to prison, I decided that my plan would be a daily regimen of mind, body and spirit in helping others and myself. For my mind, I learned to play guitar – and took over 200 guitar lessons while I was in prison. For my body, I walked 14,000 laps around the track – the equivalent of walking across the United States from New York to Los Angeles in one year. And for my spirit, I turned to God. I read the Bible, went to religious services and communed with other suffering people in ways I had never before encountered. And there was AA in prison too – and it was a gift to be able to keep my AA program going giving the other inmates comfort that they could stay sober on the street as they taught me how to stay sober in prison.
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. We sat and talked for almost two hours, and importantly, I fully disclosed everything that that happened in the past few years. They asked me to fill out an application and told me that they were going to do a background check – 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? I didn’t have to wait long. Two hours later my phone rang and I was a recovery volunteer for Silver Hill Hospital. This led me next to becoming a volunteer house manager at Liberation House in Stamford, CT – a residential rehab where guys are sent instead of being sentenced to prison. That led me to Family Reentry, a nonprofit serving the ex-offender communities in Bridgeport and New Haven CT, the first organization that asked me to serve on its Board of Directors. My then girlfriend Lynn – now my wife – worked with ex-offenders of Family Entry and converted a blighted inner city block in Bridgeport into the largest privately owned public use park and garden in the State of Connecticut.
All this time we were living in Greenwich and attending AA meetings – and I became known as the “prison guy.” I was sharing about 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 over the next six years I must have met with and counseled fifty guys in various stages of going to or coming back from prison. It was an eye opening experience and 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 church that we were attending in Greenwich, and told him that I was searching for something more meaningful. He recommended that I apply to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I told him that I thought that was a little crazy – for one thing, I’m a Jew. Next, how would I ever get accepted to the preeminent urban seminary in the world with my story? But, he told me that seminaries are in the redemption business – I should apply. And I did. I was accepted to Union Theological Seminary and went to school there for three years.
In April 2011, Chris and Rev. Holly Adams baptized me with water brought back by my friend Walt Chichocki from the River Jordan. In May 2012 I earned a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary with a Focus in Christian Social Ethics. For my master’s thesis, I wrote a 150 page treatise that became the basis of my hopefully soon to be published book, “The Art of Surviving Prison.”
A few months later, while still working with white-collar families in Greenwich and doing reentry work in Bridgeport, I accepted an offer from The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport for Lynn and I to start a prison ministry at the church. You have no idea how blessed we felt to have come from where we came from, and to have a life of service in a community where we could really make a difference. And where they could make a profound difference in us. I started to blog about the experience of working in the hood during in the day, and with white-collars in the evening when lightning struck again.
I received a call from Lawrence Delevingne, a reporter at a Hedge Fund Magazine called Absolute Return (now at cnbc.com), who had read my blog – he called me an “inner-city minister ministering to white-collar criminals and their families.” He asked if I would do an interview. And I told him that I would on one condition: that the story is about a new ministry that is bringing suffering communities together in new ways so that they can survive, transform and succeed. Over three or four sessions Lawrence conducted a sensitive and powerful interview that caught the attention of a lot of people.
The Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse & Children Project are the first ministries in the United States to support with intentionality the families of people accused or convicted of white collar and other nonviolent crimes. These families receive so little compassion and empathy – and are so easy to “other” – by a world that is all too eager to believe the next sensationalized headline and to ignore the human side.
It is true that we still spend the majority of our time in the inner city, but we find our work with white-collar families just as fulfilling. These wives and children are innocents of situations not of their own doing, in situations where they have often not been independently represented, in which husbands and fathers have gone to prison often leaving them penniless, homeless and shunned by their communities. For these mothers and children, we assemble teams of advocates, ministers, lawyers, counselors and other professionals 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 biggest 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.
Thank you for allowing me to spend a few minutes with you, tell you my story and share with you the ground breaking work we are doing the Progressive Prison Project and Innocent Spouse & Children Project. You can learn more about it on our website at progressiveprisonproject.org.
May God Bless You and Keep You Always.